TOUR BREAKDOWN: The Big One, the Tour de France starts on Saturday and our BREAKDOWN specialist, Spencer Martin, has polished his crystal ball to have a look at how the Ineos team will handle the French Grand Tour. Plus: Should Chris Froome be on the Breton start line?
Froome: Not in France for a jersey
Ineos: Too many chiefs and not enough Indians?
Ineos, the British Superteam who has won seven out of the last nine Tour de France’s revealed their Tour lineup today. The team, listed below, is fairly in line with what I expected, but with one major surprise, which is that World Time Trial Champion Rohan Dennis wasn’t included in the lineup (in highly related news, Dennis’s agent then turned around and leaked he would be joining Jumbo-Visma in 2022).
Ineos 2021 Tour de France Team:
Geraint Thomas (potential leader)
Richard Carapaz (potential leader)
Richie Porte (potential leader)
Tao Geoghegan Hart (potential leader)
Luke Rowe (domestique)
Dylan van Baarle (domestique)
Jonathan Castroviejo (domestique)
Michał Kwiatkowski (domestique)
Another interesting omission is that Adam Yates, who came over to the team from BikeExchange in the offseason, also missed out on a selection. This is a bit odd since he has been the only rider able to challenge Tadej Pogačar so far in 2021 when he hung with him on the Jebel Hafeet summit finish at the UAE Tour back in February. He has also drastically improved his time trialing and looked incredible on his way to winning the Volta Catalunya over Richie Porte, Geraint Thomas, and Richard Carapaz. This snub is devastating for Yates, since it means his only chance to race a grand tour will be the Vuelta a España in August in support of Egan Bernal. I would guess that Yates bet on himself by coming over from BikeExchange and thought if he demonstrated himself as one of the best stage racers on the team he would be rewarded with a grand tour leadership position. But unfortunately for him, he is stuck on the outside looking in at his new talent stacked team despite putting in career-best performances when given the chance.
No Adam Yates?
Even with the exclusion of Yates, this is clearly an impressive lineup that will most certainly be the strongest team at the race, but there are two glaring problems.
Ineos don’t have Pogačar or…
1) They lack the strongest rider in the race, which let’s be frank, is who wins the Tour de France almost every year. The media loves to talk about how cycling is a team sport and a mythical scenario where a strong team overcomes a stronger rider, but unfortunately, this doesn’t really happen. In every Tour the Ineos team has won, they possessed the single strongest rider in the race. Some might point to the 2008 Tour, where Carlos Sastre emerged from the field to topple pre-race favorite Cadel Evans, but if we dig deeper here, Sastre out-climbed Evans on one of the race’s hardest climbs, Alpe d’Huez on stage 17, and then held him off in the time trial on stage 20. So a very good argument could be made that while Sastre wasn’t his team’s stated leader, he was a far stronger rider than Evans in that Tour.
Does Ineos have a Sastre this year
2) Four out of their eight riders have overall aspirations. Even if they won’t admit it to the media, I guarantee that Porte and Geoghegan Hart are harboring GC aspirations and will hesitate to dump their own chances if Carapaz or Thomas run into trouble. This is a huge issue that I can’t believe hasn’t been discussed more. A team is key for a potential winner because of their ability to control the race, but this doesn’t work if half of the teammates are also attempting to win the overall.
Can the Ineos team dominate the Tour?
Ineos can attempt to solve this second issue by racing aggressively instead of defensively, but that also doesn’t come without its problems. Aggressive racing sounds great on paper, but it can be incredibly risky, and as we saw on stage 7 of the Criterium du Dauphine, it isolates your riders and sets up a situation where your lead rider is going one-on-one against the competition, who could be stronger. This might have worked against Miguel Angel Lopez at the Dauphine, but I doubt Richie Porte would look forward to being isolated with Pogacar and Roglič late on a climb at the Tour.
It has been a while
However, in Ineos’ defense, there isn’t a single great option here. They could have named Geraint Thomas the pre-race leader and only brought support riders, but that wouldn’t have netted them the overall Tour win, which is their main KPI. This four-leader strategy is most likely going to fail, and potentially produce near-comical infighting on the road. Movistar has become a laughing stock of the sport with this multi-leader strategy in recent years, but it is important to emphasize that the reason it doesn’t work is that the individual riders just aren’t strong enough instead of the strategy being inherently flawed.
Ineos has to try something, and this chosen strategy has likely given them the best chance of success, even if that chance is still unsettlingly small.
Why ISN’s Tour de France Plan for Chris Froome is a Bad Idea
Chris Froome’s new team, Israel Start Up Nation, announced this week that they are sending him to the Tour de France. This announcement isn’t particularly shocking since they are paying him €5 million a year and honestly, didn’t really have a choice. He is one of the sport’s biggest stars and if he was physically able to pedal the three-week route, he was going to be included in the squad. What were they going to do, leave him at home to collect that massive paycheck while a somewhat unknown rider took his spot?
But, what might be surprising to some is that ISN has gone out of their way to specify that while he is going to the race, he will be racing as the team’s road captain and not the actual leader.
The team’s leadership position will go to Mike Woods (more on that later), and at first glance, this all makes sense. Froome is riding extremely poorly, Woods is riding well, and the image of the veteran Froome showing the young star Woods the ropes (even though they are just about the same age) will generate a lot of positive media attention and feel-good stories. But, if we dive a little deeper, this announcement is actually quite strange, doesn’t actually make a ton of sense, and is almost guaranteed to set Froome up to fail.
First of all, it is fair to wonder what type of publicity the team will actually get once the race is underway. Froome being dropped every time the race gets hard means the cameras will be focused on his struggles and he will be hounded by the same questions over and over again after every stage. Will this actually reflect well on the team? Some might say “any publicity is good publicity,” but this isn’t actually true. I’m not sure anyone would say Bernie Madoff’s investment firm was better off after the barrage of stories about how it was actually a Ponzi scheme.
Of course, this is why the team is working the ‘road captain’ angle so hard. So that even when he is dropped, they can fall back on ‘well look how much he is doing for the team.’
Chris Froome goes to the 2021 Tour de France, why?
Unfortunately, there are a few major issues with this plan:
Froome Lacks Experience
It might sound odd to say about a 36-year-old four-time Tour de France winner but Chris Froome has almost no experience as a road captain. He is a former champion and hasn’t actually built any of the skills required to be a team captain, which is mainly being able to sit in the wind to move your leader into, and hold, prime position in the pack, setting a searing pace on the front for hours to keep a dangerous breakaway in check, and dropping back to the team car to grab food, bottles, and clothing.
Fortunately for him, he has been a winner for the vast majority of his career but this makes him incredibly unqualified for this role. And this isn’t Froome specific. Nearly every major GC winner in the sport is insulated from the nitty-gritty of the race and would be ill-equipped in a road captain role.
In nearly every race he’s done in the last ten years, Froome has been escorted to the front of races and hasn’t had to think about getting a bottle, food or clothing for himself, which begs the question of how he is going to find the motor to escort Mike Woods to the front of a nuclear fast peloton.
The Froome style hasn’t changed
Froome Lacks the Fitness
The speed of the peloton brings us to the second point. After all, it seems like every year there is a barrage of stories about how the pace and ferocity of the fight for position at the front of the peloton during the first week of the Tour de France is faster/crazier than ever. So, if we assume this to be true, it doesn’t seem like you’d want to put a 36-year-old struggling rider who has always been able to rely on others to handle this for him in charge of dealing with this.
Does Froome have the numbers?
Froome Lacks a Leader
Potentially the biggest issue for this plan is that, as we covered on Monday, the team’s stated leader, Mike Woods, simply doesn’t have the technical or TT skills to stay high up in the overall standings. To date, his highest ever overall finish is 32nd and he has never won a European stage race.
Making matters worse is that this upcoming Tour emphasizes the parts of cycling where Woods struggles, namely descending and time trialing. By my count, eight stages finish on some sort of descent, and there are two individual time trials that add up to 58-kilometers of total time trialing. This coming Tour is set up for a rider who loves ripping descents but hates long summit finishes (i.e. Julian Alaphilippe). Adding salt to the wound, there are very few punchy summits finishes where a rider like Woods could take time, and the few that exist will likely be won by Mathieu van der Poel.
2021 Tour de France Route Breakdown:
Downhill Finishes: 8
Uphill Finishes: 2
Summit Finishes: 3
58kms of TTs
I’ve seen some pundits cite Woods’ 7th place overall at the 2017 Vuelta a España as an example of his ability as a GC rider, but one thing I’ve noticed since then is that while time trialing speeds have risen, Woods has failed to match this increasing pace.
Perhaps most concerning was his performance in the recent Tour de Suisse, where he lost 2’32 to Rigoberto Uran in a 23km TT which featured a long climb that in theory should have meant the TT would suit him, but oddly, he failed to perform much better than in recent flat time trials. Unfortunately, the poor performance on the long, steady climb underlines a major issue, namely that he could have trouble matching his rivals on long alpine climbs that favor riders who can grind out consistent high watts without relying on the surging that Woods is so skilled at.
Any chance for Woods?
But even if he looks impressive on the climbs, it is hard to imagine Woods staying in the top ten of the GC at this Tour with his lack of descending and time trailing, which means that Froome won’t actually have a leader to support as a ‘road captain’ for. This means the ISN team will likely have to regroup as stage hunters, much like they did at the recent Giro d’Italia. This will leave little room for a ceremonial road captain and will only make the spotlight on Froome more intense and underline how much he is struggling to find even a small piece of his old form.
# Spencer Martin is the author of the cycling-analysis newsletter Beyond the Peloton that breaks down the nuances of each race and answers big picture questions surrounding team and rider performance. Sign up now to get full access to all the available content and race breakdowns. #