Words by Sophie Smith | Photo by SWpix.com
There was a time not so longer ago when patrons – older, experienced riders, some natural leaders, some prominent racers, some tormenters – controlled the peloton and what they said largely went.
Now, the boss of one of cycling’s biggest teams has suggested the days when patrons ruled the peloton may be over, that the rules of governance within the bunch have changed from top to bottom. He’s added that his team wants to be part of that more anarchic process.
In his heyday at Highroad, Mark Cavendish once observed that the bunch belonged to his then older teammates Michael Rogers and Bernhard Eisel; when Rohan Dennis was a rookie, sitting with his parents in a hotel lobby at the Tour Down Under, he recalled Eisel advising him “don’t even think about it” when he tried to move off the front in a typically hot and blustery stage.
The smell of strong aftershave would announce Fabian Cancellara’s arrival in a room but on the bike, sitting up and making a simple hand gesture was apparently enough for the peloton to follow his lead. At the Tour de France last year, Primoz Roglic and his Jumbo-Visma teammates showed glimpses of that same, assertive style of peloton management.
It was veteran Tony Martin and then Roglic, who signaled for the riders to slow down due to wet and slippery roads on the opening stage. Roglic and his team’s collective clout is clear but the difference on that occasion, compared to Cancellara or Rogers’ time, perhaps, was that a group of Astana riders initially didn’t listen and soon after crashed, with Ineos Grenadiers road captain Luke Rowe later observing that the latter looked “pretty stupid”.
The internal workings of the peloton are a somewhat private matter. As a writer, you can follow a stage of the Tour de France on the back of a motorbike – and I have many times – weaving between the break and the peloton, sometimes literally getting right in the face of a rider. It’s awesome, provides unparalleled insight and the occasional laugh, but you do also feel, at that close proximity, a bit awkward, like you’ve interrupted a deep and meaningful conversation and should leave.
Rogers, Eisel and Cancellara are now retired and while there are still glimpses of the old ways, management has changed, according to Ineos Grenadiers boss Sir Dave Brailsford. The injection of youth in the WorldTour peloton has not only signaled a changing of the guard and difference in racing style but also in attitude.
“I think there’s some great rivalries developing and stories developing in the sport. There’s the young guys coming in, the young guys against the old guys, the old guys against each other, so there’s a lot of subplots if you like, angles, that is very exciting to see,” said Brailsford.
“I think it’s been driven by the young guys coming in, energising the racing, the way they race, the style of racing. At the [cyclo-cross] Worlds … watching Wout van Aert, [Mathieu] van der Poel, Tom Pidcock in that, there’s some fantastic young talent in this sport and it’s been changed from below, rather than dictated from the top. That’s where the sport has been for many, many years, governed by the older, more established riders and style, it seems to be disrupted [by] the young guys and it’s fun to be part of.”
Youth versus experience is one of the subplots that Ineos Grenadiers is set to embrace at this year’s Tour de France, where Geraint Thomas is set to lead the team: at 34, he is a veteran compared to reigning champion Tadej Pogacar, the Slovenian who won the race before his 22nd birthday last season.
As influential as young riders have been, Brailsford has backed Thomas for the task with no end date to the 2018 Tour champion and 2019 runner-up’s run at the race yet in sight.
“No, I wouldn’t say it’s his last Tour,” Brailsford said. “It’s down to him really. When you get into your thirties it’s how hungry you are and how much drive internally, inside the individual you still have. And if you still really, really have that burning desire, that drive, then the training and everything else, all the rest of it you have to do, the commitment, the sacrifice you have to make, you can do it. So, I don’t think there’s a physical component to that really, it’s more a mental thing … He’s really excited about this year. So absolutely it’s possible and it’s great in many respects to have a 34-year-old up against a 21-year-old, it’s brilliant for the sport and everybody in between.”
Thomas headlines a cast for the Tour that also includes 36-year-old Richie Porte, who finished third overall behind Pogacar and Roglic last season, plus reigning Giro d’Italia champion Tao Geoghegan Hart, 25, Richard Carapaz, 27, with Brailsford not ruling out line-up changes and the possibility of 2019 yellow jersey winner Egan Bernal, currently down for the Giro d’Italia, sliding in.
Ineos Grenadiers found itself in unfamiliar territory not winning the Tour de France last year but Brailsford said the team, while not abandoning tactics that have previously held it in good stead, is set on evolving with the peloton.
“It’s very much about looking forward and developing from what we experienced last year rather than any kind of judgement on the past,” Brailsford said. “There are a lot of tools in the tactical box and the train sometimes is the right tool for the job, it’s absolutely still relevant. However, I think we’ve all seen a shift in the nature of racing, and we want to be at the forefront of that.
“I think the sport is changing in general, the way the races are being raced is different. We saw a fantastic season of Grand Tours last year. It wasn’t predictable, the unexpected happened a lot and it was very, very exciting for everybody.”