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Grand Tours haven’t gone this badly for Team Ineos/Sky since 2014. Every year since then, the team’s won at least one three-week race. In 2017 and 2018, it won two. So far in 2020, Ineos has had both of its GC campaigns fall to pieces.
The team will be ruing its misfortune, and rightly so, but there are plenty of positives to be drawn from Ineos’ mishaps – not least for those of us watching on.
In the lead-up to the Tour de France, Ineos looked set to bring three former winners to the party: Egan Bernal, Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome. Only Bernal ended up at the race and when he fell by the wayside in the back half of the race, Ineos’ streak of five straight Tour wins was over. But the team wasted no time in pivoting towards stage-hunting, and did so effectively.
Richard Carapaz, a late call-up to the race, got in the break three days in a row in the final week, trying desperately to salvage something for his team. In three days of aggressive, inspired racing, the Ecuadorian finished second, 11th (after leading solo into the final 3 km), and then second again. The second of those runner-up finishes was behind teammate Michal Kwiatkowski in a scintillating Ineos 1-2.
Kwiatkowski’s win was emblematic of the team’s shift in focus and its success in doing so. Here was a rider who’s spent so much of his career riding in support of others at Grand Tours, almost certainly at the expense of his own opportunities. With his GC leader gone, and no need to ride tempo in the mountains day after day, Kwiatkowski was free to fly.
He took the opportunity presented to him, got in the break with Carapaz on stage 18, and the pair rode brilliantly to get clear and ride to the line together. Even the most Ineos-weary spectator had to appreciate the panache.
It’s been a similar tale at the Giro d’Italia. Ineos came in with the pre-race favourite, Geraint Thomas, and the Welshman lived up to his billing with a great stage 1 time trial, finishing fourth behind his stage-winning teammate Filippo Ganna. Even at that early point, it seemed Thomas was destined for Giro success. And then he hit a bidon in the neutral zone on stage 3 and fractured his pelvis.
Thomas battled on, but was dropped on approach to the day’s final climb. Mere minutes later, with the team’s GC ambitions in tatters, Jonathan Castroviejo was on the move, trying to get away from the remnants of the peloton. Little came of the Spaniard’s acceleration, but it signalled the team’s intent — just like at the Tour, Ineos was determined to have an impact, even if it wasn’t in the way it had initially planned.
Fast forward a few days, to the Giro’s mountainous fifth stage. A break took 50 km to get away but when it did, Ineos had two riders up front: newly rainbowed ITT world champion Ganna, and Salvatore Puccio. Ganna was supposed to be riding for Puccio but as the day wore on, it became clear Ganna was the stronger of the two Italians. And not just stronger than Puccio; stronger than everyone else up front.
In near-darkness, on the Valico di Montescuro, the 83 kg Ganna pulled away from riders much lighter and more suited to the mountains. The 24-year-old crested that final climb alone and descended through the mist on sodden roads to claim the first road race victory of his pro career.
The way Ineos drew it up pre-Giro, Ganna would have ridden that mountain in support of Thomas. He would have been part of an Ineos squad near the front of the bunch, likely setting a high tempo to put Thomas’ rivals in difficulty. Instead what we got was a plucky performance from a rider who had no business winning a mountain stage from a breakaway. Brilliant.
Regardless of how the Giro ends up, it’s already been a success for Ineos. Sure, the team would love to be riding Thomas into the maglia rosa over the coming weeks, but with that option no longer on the table, it has pivoted wonderfully.
In five stages the team now has two stage wins — both from Ganna — and further success seems likely, especially given there’s still two time trials to come. Ganna could well end his debut Grand Tour with four stage victories.
From a PR perspective, both the Tour and the Giro have been a boon for Ineos. The team known for its Grand Tour GC dominance, and lambasted for its robotic and predictable racing, has suddenly become far more human and far more relatable. Here is a team racing with aggression, taking opportunities, and entertaining onlookers in the process.
It won’t be this way forever. The Vuelta a España begins in less than two weeks and Ineos has any or all of Froome, Carapaz and Bernal at its disposal. We’ll almost certainly see the team back to its old tricks in Spain, focusing on GC, and lining things out in the mountains. Fair enough — that’s what they’re there to do.
Until then though, let’s sit back and enjoy the show.