Tour de France 2021 - Bad luck? Poor tactics? Inability to improvise? How Ineos' Tour de France turned sour...
With no stage wins and a third-place overall through Richard Carapaz, Ineos have come away with their worst results at a Tour de France since 2014. What are the reasons for this disappointing year? Is it all down to bad luck, or could the best Grand Tour-racing team of the 21st Century have got something more from their three weeks?
'Does not look good' – Thomas dislocates shoulder in nasty crash on Stage 3
The first thing we should say is that for most cycling teams, having a rider on the podium of the Tour de France would be deemed an unqualified success. It is only a measure of the stature the Sky/Ineos franchise has achieved that Richard Carapaz’ third place – sealed today with a capable if not wholly electrifying performance in the time trial to Saint-Emilion – will be deemed something of a disappointment.
It was Ineos’ goal to win all three Grand Tours this year, and the victory they pulled off in the Giro set them on the right path. They might yet win La Vuelta. But the Tour, for this year at least, is now beyond their grasp.
The strange thing is we expect Ineos (and Sky before that) to win the Tour. They have won seven of the last nine editions, after all. Seven out of ten if we count 2021, which is still a very creditable 70% success rate.
Highlights: Van Aert wins stage as Pogacar all but seals yellow jersey with polished ITT performance
Ineos didn’t manage a stage win this year, either. Something even rarer for them than not-winning the maillot jaune. Indeed, you have to go back to 2014 for the last edition where they won neither the GC nor a single day of the race. That was a fairly disastrous edition of the Tour for Team Sky, losing Chris Froome to a double crash on stage five and failing thereon to really make an impression on the race, despite it beginning.
It feels almost as though they never really got close to taking something from this year’s race, but what are the reasons behind this all-time low?
Luck has certainly had something to do with it. Geraint Thomas’ crash robbed the team of its lynchpin, the rider who could be relied upon to do well in the TTs and climb with competence, if not outright attacking flair. Thomas was not able to shake off the injuries he incurred on Stage 3, when he had his shoulder ‘popped’ back into place on the tarmac, and underperformed in the TT on Stage 5 as a result. He was effectively dead in the GC water from then on and, with the Olympic Games looming as his next target for the season, he could be easily forgiven for rolling towards Paris in more of a support role.
Today, he seemed content to go easy and enjoy the scenery, registering a time 3’28” slower than stage winner Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma).
There is also a question of tactics. Ineos’ stated strategy going into the race was to attack with multiple riders, to overwhelm the likes of Pogačar and Roglič with their superior numbers. This raised a few eyebrows in the pre-Tour build-up because of its similarity to a certain fork-themed strategy employed against Team Sky in previous years.
Unfortunately, this swashbuckling approach to the Tour never materialised. Without the bedrock provided by Thomas, the more expressive riders in the team – namely Carapaz – could not take the same risks that they might have otherwise. The other points to their trident – or whatever a four-pronged pointy stick is called – were also dulled by early time losses. Riders like Richie Porte (who came third overall last year) and Tao Geoghegan Hart (a Giro champion) could’ve done so much more as attacking foils going up the road to put pressure on Pogačar, had they not lost four and 19 minutes respectively in the first five days. There was simply no reason for Pogačar to chase a move containing Ineos.
As a result, Ineos fell into a familiar strategy in the mountains, setting up a train at the front of the peloton and grinding out a tempo. As anyone who rode the Tour for Movistar in the last decade could’ve told them, though, this strategy only works if you actually have the strongest team. This year, the Ineos Mountain Train did little more than provide an armchair ride for Pogačar, who probably appreciated the lift given his own team was largely missing in action for much of the race.
It seemed like an inability to improvise, more than anything else. The team that promised an attacking approach to the GC fight probably deprived themselves of a couple of stage wins by putting all their eggs in the Carapaz basket and riding defensively instead.
'A brilliant day for Ineos' - Watch Kwiatkowski and Carapaz's special winning moment
In 2020, Michal Kwiatkowski memorably won a stage, a picturesque one-two with Carapaz, after both of them had snuck into the breakaway on Stage 18. They had only been allowed up the road because their GC leader Egan Bernal had abandoned the race. They got lemons and made lemonade. This year, they come away looking a bit sour.