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Before the start of Paris-Roubaix all is calm at the Ineos Grenadiers team bus. Sports director Roger Hammond silently exits the bus with the supplies he needs for the day, team mechanics tape race plans to bike stems with little fanfare, soigneurs patiently wait by the cars.
No one is really talking, except for Sir Dave Brailsford. He flows from team member to team member, conducting softly spoken discussions with each of them. The riders eventually disembark the team bus for the sign-on before returning briefly and then making their way to the start line. Not much is said between them. No laughing, no joking. Paris-Roubaix is a high point on the cycling calendar with cause for celebration, but it soon becomes clear that the British squad have a very serious job to do.
“Typical Dave Brailsford,” says Bradley Wiggins, slumped on the grass in the middle of the velodrome after a gruelling day out on the TV motorbike.
“To hell with tradition and do something not out of the textbook and break the mould really…and do that on the section where no-one would expect that to work.”
It would be easy – and incorrect – to put Dylan van Baarle’s hard-fought Paris-Roubaix down to Brailsford playing 4D chess with the rest of the peloton. The first cobbled sector would see the checkered board upturned and the pieces everywhere.
Instead, it was a day of outstanding teamwork, mighty individual strength, and a willingness to take the race to others that won out.
“First of all, we wanted to be focused in the start, with some crosswinds you can find yourself in the back like Van der Poel and Van Aert,” Van Baarle explained of Ineos’ planned tactics before the start of the race. His teammate, Ben Turner, puts it in more colloquial terms. “To rip the race apart, in a nutshell, we did that.”
But then, with Van der Poel and Van Aert out of position, Ineos sensed an opportunity. High on the confidence of victory at both Brabantse Pijl and Amstel Gold, where they dominated, the blend of youth and experience knew they could bend the race to their will. This wasn’t how they had planned to do it, Turner said at the finish.
“The crosswinds were there and we just took it on,” the youngster explained. “We were the best team going into the race, we knew that. Our strength is the team and we rode as a team today and Dylan was incredible.”
Between the riders on the road and the directors in the car, as everyone wondered how Ineos would play this out after burning matches early, the specific plan was hatched.
“Survive until the Arenberg and see who’s there,” Van Baarle elaborated. “Our plan was to make the race hard before that second feed on the cobbled section. Kwiatkowski said I was super strong and he would help me whatever it took and it was freestyle after that.”
Van Baarle isn’t the flashiest rider. He is best when the race is long and his rivals are tired, when “the top of their top power” is lopped off is when he can take advantage. Second in the 2022 Worlds road race and another runner-up position two weeks ago at the Tour of Flanders meant this result was coming. The fact he came into the race without fanfare while in possession of these results speaks to how quietly he goes about his business.
Making up for the Dutchman’s pizzazz is Ben Turner. The exciting young prospect has announced himself this Classics campaign with a string of outstanding performances in his first few months as a professional.
“We’re taking over, obviously,” Turner says, still able to joke after stumbling to his feet and needing a moment before recalling his race, such was his exhaustion. “I think we’re the strongest team. The way we rode the last few races is amazing.
“I’ve never been this tired in my life. It was so hard, I was on the limit for so, so long. I thought I was going to get dropped with 100 km to go and I was just on the limit and it’s so incredible to be a part of this team, for Dylan to win, we won the last three Classics, it’s phenomenal.”
‘Phenomenal’ sums it up and is a far cry from the British squad’s comparative failure to make a dent in the spring compared to their Grand Tour dominance over the past decade.
“I don’t know really, probably just a lull in the last few years, a bit of disappointment and external criticism from the sport,” Wiggins explains as to how Ineos have finally turned their luck around in the Classics. “But they’ve also had to learn a different way of racing and it’s taken them a few years to do that.”
With Pogačar dominating their favoured Tour de France, and the Slovenian’s might seemingly inextinguishable at the moment, have the British team changed tack? After all, when they get to the end of the season, they can now already call it a success, before a Grand Tour has even begun.
“Maybe, I said before as well, the guys who are doing well here in these Classics are all the guys who are supporting Bernal and those riders in the Grand Tours,” Wiggins offered up by way of analysis of the current State of the Union at Ineos. “It’s not like in the past where they had a Classics team with Stannard and the like that would stop after here and have a break and then do the Vuelta. They seem to have a team that can cover all aspects of cycling at the moment, which I guess is what the sport is about now.”
Dave Brailsford stands alone, hands raised above his head, the other side of the velodrome finish line. His rider, who finished outside the time limit at the same race just six months earlier, now stands triumphant, capping off a period during which his team has re-announced themselves, rising from the ashes after having their house burned down by a Slovenian wonder kid. The problem appeared unsolvable, until the British squad realised, they could just win the other biggest bike races instead. Spring has finally sprung for the Ineos Grenadiers.