Transfer Takeaways: Eventually Team INEOS Grenadiers announced that they were extending the contract of Geraint Thomas. Spencer Martin looks at what that means on both sides, but also there are still many WorldTour rider without contract – What are the implications for the US gravel scene.
New contract for Geraint Thomas
Geraint Thomas’ Contract Extension With Ineos Causes More Problems Than It Solves
One of the highest-profile unsigned riders remaining on the market was taken off the board when Ineos recently announced they had finally re-signed 2018 Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas to a two-year contract extension. Some fans might have looked at this news and thought it was a simple story of Ineos bringing back a star rider and adding to their incredibly deep roster of overall grand tour contenders.
Dauphiné stage win for Thomas
However, if we examine this re-signing a little bit closer, it paints a much less rosy picture, as well as shining a light on how Ineos’ future GC prospects are much more complicated than meets the eye.
- At 35, Geraint Thomas is extremely old for a viable Tour de France contender. To win the event in 2022, he would have to beat generational talents in their prime, like Tadej Pogačar, who is more than a decade younger, and become only the second 36-year-old of all time to win the race (and the first since World War II). His age, combined with his lack of success in recent seasons (his last grand tour stage win came nearly four years ago at the 2018 Tour de France), means it will extremely unlikely that he can ever truly compete for overall success, and would only add value to a grand tour squad as a road captain and domestique.
- However, as nice as this sounds, it is nearly unheard of for former Tour de France to ever truly transition into a domestique role.
- Ineos is likely well aware of this fact. They decided not to bring defending 2012 champion Bradley Wiggins to the 2013 edition, and struggled with intrateam tensions between Thomas and defending champion Chris Froome at the 2018 Tour.
- Despite being too old to truly compete against today’s top talents, Thomas, as a homegrown British grand tour champion, and still has a lot of influence with the media and certain decision-makers inside the team. This means he has the ability to make things incredibly difficult for the organization if he doesn’t like the role he is offered at grand tours, and could force the team to continue to carve out ‘wildcard’ leadership roles like they did at the 2021 Tour de France.
The past and the future – Pogačar, Froome and Thomas
Stuck Between The Past & The Future
Thomas’ continued presence on the squad could potentially put them in a bind as they transition to a team that is more focused on Egan Bernal and Richard Carapaz.
- In 2021, they certainly suffered due to the fact that they attempted to balance leadership between older riders like Richie Porte and Geraint Thomas and the younger stars Egan Bernal and Richard Carapaz.
- This inability to fully back their most talented riders saw them throw away a chance at an Egan Bernal podium finish at the 2021 La Vuelta due to the constant dueling between himself and Adam Yates, which culminated when the team accidentally dropped Bernal during a key moment of stage 20 and cost him over six minutes in the GC.
- Highlighting the absurdity of this decision is the fact that Bernal has won two grand tours in the past three seasons (2019 Tour & 2021 Giro), but wasn’t prioritized by the team over a rider who has never finished on a grand tour overall podium.
High point in 2021 – Tour de Romandie win, but not without its falls
The timeline surrounding Thomas’ contract negotiations suggests Ineos’ view of Thomas’ role vastly differed from Thomas’ own. Even though according to Thomas, a signing was reportedly imminent back in October, pen wasn’t actually put to paper until a little over a week left in the year. This extremely drawn-out process suggested Thomas and Ineos were not on the same page regarding compensation numbers and potentially more important, the shape of Thomas’ role within the team at major races.
- The timeline and the fact that Thomas described the process as ‘the worst one [contract] to redo,’ means that Thomas was most likely desperately looking for a team willing to give him leadership at the Tour de France, but when his biggest pursuer, Qhubeka-NextHash, went under, he lost any leverage. This allowed Ineos to run the clock down and re-sign him at a much lower number than he is currently on and gave them a chance to reset expectations about the coming season.
- It is possible that Ineos has used this unpleasant negotiation process to signal to Thomas his standing on the team going forward and that the team will be able to move into a new era of backing its best young riders while its older stars like Porte and Thomas will dedicate themselves to working for those younger riders.
- However, nothing we saw in 2021 would indicate this turnaround is coming. Additionally, Thomas is an incredibly popular rider with fans and the media, which means he has a significant ability to rock the boat if he is unhappy with leadership and/or race selection decisions.
- The most obvious outcome is that Ineos’ grand tour dynamics will continue to be incredibly difficult due to their decision to include both older stars and young talent.
Carapaz and Thomas will have to watch Pogačar
Will The Shrinking WorldTour See More Top Riders Transition to Gravel?
Thirty-two riders from the 2021 WorldTour are currently still without contracts. This might seem like a lot, but with the Qhubeka-NextHash team folding at the end of 2021 meaning there will be one less WorldTour team in 2022, and debutants coming into the top level, there will have to be at least 30 riders from the 2021 WorldTour who don’t make a top-tier team in 2022.
Still no contract for Domenico Pozzovivo, and others
Current Unsigned 2021 WorldTour Riders
Qhubeka-NextHash’s collapse has left a lot of quality riders on the outside looking in for 2022. For example, Domenico Pozzovivo, who finished 11th overall at the 2020 Giro d’Italia, could very well be looking at a drop-down to the second-division, or retirement, in 2022.
It will be interesting to see how many of these riders pivot to gravel instead of looking for riders on second-division ProTeams. While Jempey Drucker could get a spot on a team like TotalEnergies and still compete at the sport’s biggest races, riders like Lachlan Morton, Logan Owen, and Alex Howes will almost pivot full-time to competing at major US-based gravel events.
The most interesting wrinkle here is to see what happens to riders of the caliber of Simon Clarke. At 35-years-old, the Australian is unlikely to get another spot on a WorldTour team or worthwhile second-division team, but if he decided to chase wins at the biggest gravel events, his combination of talent and years of intense volume racing/training would almost certainly see him heavily disrupt the gravel scene, which was dominated by either career off-road riders without WorldTour experience until just recently. A major downstream effect of this continued professionalization of the discipline would mean the gravel scene would cease to be a viable option for less physically skilled riders and would almost certainly lose its free-spirited, less-competitive vibe.
WorldTour for gravel?
# 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. #