Five days ago on the final stage of the Tour de L’Ain, the familiar Sky train (although perhaps now we should call it the Ineos Engine, or the Petroleum Parade?) rolled its way to the front of the peloton and began to set a punitive pace. So far, so familiar.
This technique was no means invented by Team Ineos, but they have mastered it to a degree that not even the super-powered US Postal team managed in its pomp. Lance’s gang called it the ‘mountain train’ and it’s a pretty simple strategy; you put your strongest riders on the front, then ride uphill at a speed intended to shake loose the support riders of other teams, effectively isolating rival GC riders, before your strongest rider pulverises them with a final attack.
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It has been devastatingly effective at winning stage races for Ineos (and Sky before that), which is why it was so surprising to see that – instead of knocking out the competition – Ineos only succeeded in landing a body blow against its own hopes in the race.
After Geraint Thomas pulled the peloton along the final valley only to drop back immediately to the team car, Andrey Amador, a recent signing from Movistar – not necessarily known for their tactical nous – took up the cudgel.
At this point, Jumbo Visma’s leader Primoz Roglic still had three domestiques to help him.
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With Amador exhausted, Jonathan Castroviejo hit the front, before trading a turn with a certain four-time Tour de France-winning domestique superdeluxe. Froome managed a mighty turn, while Bernal glided back to sit at the very tail of the elite selection. After some Voeckler-esque face-pulling, Froome succeeded in dropping himself and passing duties back to Castroviejo. 200 metres later, Ineos finally succeeded in dropping a big name from the group of favourites… unfortunately, it was their own leader, Egan Bernal.
Castroviejo dropped back then, allowing Jumbo to take charge of the pulling, and eventually the Spaniard was able to bring his Colombian team leader back into the group of favourites. With Bernal safely returned, the indefatigable Castroviejo made a bizarre half-attack, riding a few bike lengths off the front before being irrevocably dropped about a minute after.
The net result of all this chaotic endeavour was to flip the number of Ineos and Jumbo from four on four to one against three, leaving Bernal to battle a swarm of 'Jumbo Bees’ alone.
Roglic won the final uphill dash for the line at a canter, even managing to fit in a bit of eyeballing gamesmanship as he passed his Colombian rival.
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All part of the masterplan
We are used to seeing an almost mechanical precision from Ineos and a solid (if one-note) tactical vision, so this rare aberration – albeit in a largely unimportant, low-tier race – was particularly noteworthy. A blip, we all thought, or an intentional relinquishment of the race win as part of some ineffable training plan that would have them peak just in time for the Tour itself. The same climbs used in the final stage of L’Ain will feature in the Tour next month as part of stage 15 – and any professional will tell you there is no better recon than having recently raced on the roads in question.
It was a surprise then to see more tactical missteps from Ineos in the first two stages of the Criterium du Dauphiné this week, which continues on the Eurosport Player.
On stage 1 on Wednesday, Ineos took a different tack, deciding to sit deeper in the peloton and let Jumbo do the pacing.
The finish was not hard enough for the pure climbers to exercise their strengths and Jumbo clearly had plans to set up the prodigiously talented Wout van Aert for the finish rather than Roglic. A speculative attack from EF Pro Cycling’s Rigoberto Uran put the cat among the pigeons, with Roglic scrambling after him. It was a rare glimpse of the stone-cold Slovenian in panic mode.
Rarer still, we saw Ineos badly placed in the peloton when the hammer dropped, struggling to make their way around on the fringes of the bunch like lowly ProTeam wildcard invitees. Eventually Michal Kwiatkowski and Bernal got clear of the bunch and closed the yawning gap to the leaders. No biggie, then, really – but we simply aren’t used to seeing Ineos get caught napping.
Highlights: Wout van Aert takes opening stage
The next day provided a true mountain test, the Col de Porte, and an almost exact replica of how the last day of L’Ain played out. More mountain train. More Ineos riders getting dropped by their own pace-setting. This time, Ineos turned a 6-3 advantage in terms of manpower into a 1-2 deficit. A disaster, tactically.
A tired Castroviejo, looking more like a 20-a-day smoker taking on Box Hill for the first time as part of the RideLondon 100 than an elite WorldTour climber, was deployed earlier this time – presumably so he could peel off and coast up the climb to recover before more tough days this weekend. Kwiatkowski then delivered a typically monstrous effort on the front that succeeded in shelling both himself and Chris Froome, but no members of the Jumbo-Visma squad. Thomas came next and he was at least successful in getting shot of Kruijswijk, before Pavel Sivakov hit the front, the last man in Bernal’s bodyguard.
An attack from Emmanuel Buchmann with two kilometres to go came at just the wrong time for Ineos, with Sivakov dropped immediately and Sepp Kuss masterfully chasing it down for his teammate, Roglic. Bernal, left to fight solo again against two Jumbo riders and eight other GC leaders, must have been wondering what the point of all that preamble had been. Moments later, Roglic put in an uphill seated acceleration that nobody else could match, winning the stage by a country mile.
Same strategy as L’Ain, and an even worse result for Ineos.
Why isn’t this working?
The mountain train can be devastatingly effective if you have the best roster. Because Jumbo has invested so aggressively in talent in the past few years, Ineos no longer have the de facto strongest squad on any start list.
Sepp Kuss has grown into a fearsome mountain warrior after a chastening experience at the Giro last year when he was chucked in last-minute as a replacement for the injured Robert Gesink. George Bennett seems to be kicking in heads for fun at the moment, while new signing Tom Dumoulin is a Grand Tour winner who seems unfazed by putting in a shift in service of another rider, a characteristic for which Chris Froome is often rightly praised too.
Long-time Jumbo veterans like Steven Kruijswijk and Robert Gesink have been invaluable over the years in helping to build the foundation of a Grand Tour-winning machine, while Tony Martin provides the flatland-crushing, diesel engine. It also helps that Roglic himself looks to be in career-best form.
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There are, of course, other explanations for this downturn in Ineos’ fortunes.
Some have suggested Ineos are simply better at peaking at the right time. Anyone who saw Chris Froome seize the Giro d’Italia lead in a solo breakaway after grovelling through the first two weeks of the 2018 race, would hardly dare to disagree. The Tour is usually won in its final week, not its first, and that is still more than a month from now. If Roglic and co. are at their maximum level already, it would be near-impossible to maintain that for five whole weeks.
Another popular theory is that Ineos is bluffing. They are letting Jumbo punch themselves out, before hitting the Tour fresh. It’s at least as persuasive as the other theories, but it seems incredibly risky to take such an approach when the Tour is not certain to go ahead, and even less sure to reach its conclusion. As Sky, the organisation had a solitary focus; winning the Tour de France. Now, as Ineos, it remains to be seen if they still maintain that singularity of vision – but if they do, they would have no choice but to put all their eggs in the La Grande Boucle basket. Surely, Sir Jim Ratcliffe would not be content with spending all that money just to watch his team get its head kicked in at the Dauphiné and finish first in an abbreviated Tour de France.
While we can’t know exactly what is going on right now inside Ineos, if they want to make an impression on the next month’s racing, we know they must change things up. The old tactics don’t seem to be working and they are no longer the biggest dog in the pack. They must find new ways to win and, most excitingly of all, they have to try and solve a problem they had long posed to the other teams; how do you beat an opponent who is, on paper, stronger than you?
One hopes they can find an answer, that we are not entering a new era of dominance, with one superpower simply replacing another, and that instead we get to enjoy a few years of beautifully balanced Grand Tour racing with a bit more swashbuckle, and a lot more excitement.
By Tom Owen - @tomowencc