Words by Peter Cossins | Photos by SWpix.com
Directed by Joël Santoni, La Course en Tête was a 1974 documentary film that looked at the racing and private life of Eddy Merckx. The title came from the Belgian’s tactical style, literally translated as “racing from the front”, an approach where riders would try to create openings at every opportunity rather than being defensive for the most part and waiting for the arrival of the terrain where they could make their physical advantage pay.
When employed by Merckx and the powerful teams riding for him, la course en tête was based on the simple idea that attack is the best form of defence. In Half Man, Half Bike, his fascinating portrait of Merckx, my colleague William Fotheringham explains: “As a way of racing it is pro-active. It is centred on the premise that as much physical and mental energy is used in chasing down moves as is spent in making them.”
Explaining the approach himself, Merckx said: “There are a lot of things in a race that you can’t control although you have to be aware of them. The main thing you can count on is yourself. And that’s what I always put the emphasis on.” It meant that he generally controlled the rhythm of a race and his rivals had to follow it, which took as much out of them physically as it did out of him. His desire to control was also assisted by the fact that his rivals were often supine, letting him take the initiative and fighting over the scraps that he left them.
The tactic was, says Fotheringham, “the benchmark for the entire sport”. It was adopted in much the same all-controlling fashion by the Renault teams managed by Cyrille Guimard and led by Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon. It was adapted by Banesto in the Miguel Indurain era and, more recently, by Team Sky in their quest for Tour de France victories. At this year’s Tour, Jumbo-Visma offered their take on it, controlling the racing but, fatally – and unlike Merckx – not undermining the strength and morale of all their rivals.
At the start of the Giro d’Italia, Ineos Grenadiers were set to follow the same strategy, controlling the race when they needed to, aiming to keep team leader Geraint Thomas out of trouble until specific moments when he would attempt to demonstrate his edge on his rivals. However, when their leader was taken down by a rogue bidon in the neutral zone before the start of stage three to the summit finish on Mont Etna, Ineos had to adapt.
Initially, it appeared that their new plan was another simple one: forget the GC and focus on stage wins. Their riders were given the freedom to get into breakaways, Salvatore Puccio, Jonathan Castroviejo, Ben Swift, Rohan Dennis all featuring, while Filippo Ganna and Jhonatan Narváez took stage wins after being in escapes.
However, it gradually became clear that this tactic was nuanced. Tao Geoghegan Hart was being held back. As Jumbo (early on), Trek and, particularly, Deceuninck controlled the bunch, Geogheghan Hart stayed in the pack with a couple of teammates to protect him. Even when the Briton did emerge to win the stage at Piancavallo at the start of the Giro’s third week, his success still appeared to confirm the stage-hunting strategy. Yet, at the same time, it boosted him from 11th to fourth overall and confirmed him as one of the two strongest climbers in the race, along with Sunweb’s Jai Hindley.
By keeping the focus of rival teams and the media away from Geoghegan Hart, Ineos had enabled him to almost tiptoe into contention, his confidence growing all the time. Having targeted a top 10 finish following Thomas’s abandon, the Londoner now had the maglia rosa right in his sights. Interestingly, rather than switching back to their long-tested Grand Tour strategy of controlling the bunch on critical GC stages at this point, Ineos stuck to Plan B and kept putting riders in breakaways, giving them the chance of stage wins, but also enabling Geoghegan Hart to draw on their support if required. Ultimately, it paid off. Ineos finished the Giro with the title and seven stage wins.
In the aftermath of the Geoghegan Hart’s first Grand Tour win, Ineos boss Dave Brailsford proclaimed this new (for them) style of riding, declaring that the “defensive” approach employed by Sky was a thing of the past. “What I liked about this is, we’ve done the train, we’ve done the defensive style of riding and won a lot doing that, but it’s not as much fun, really, compared to this, is it? At the end of day, the sport is about racing, it’s about emotion and the exhilarating moments of racing, and that’s what we want to be,” he stated.
With the first week of the Vuelta a España running concurrently to the Giro’s last, it’s clearly too soon for this change of emphasis to be applied in the final Grand Tour of this unprecedented and often astonishing season. In Spain, where Richard Carapaz is already in the red leader’s jersey, the Grenadiers have so far adopted a more conservative approach, although the Ecuadorian’s thrilling attacks when the right moments arrive do provide plenty of exhilaration.
But what of future Grand Tours? Brailsford is insistent that his team will stick to this more aggressive approach, one that gives more of their riders a chance to show what they’re capable of. “I’m relishing the new philosophy that the sport has. We’ve got to embrace that and see how good we can be at racing,” he said amidst the euphoria of Geoghegan Hart’s win.
What’s more, as was the case at the Giro, Ineos may find that they’re forced to adopt this approach, having seen how being the strongest team at the Tour didn’t ultimately result in Jumbo-Visma netting the yellow jersey. Like the Dutch outfit, they need to find ways to harry and weaken Tour winner Tadej Pogacar. As Brailsford himself suggested, “the train”, the cycling equivalent of “parking the bus”, the ultra-defensive tactic employed by José Mourinho when he was coach at Inter Milan, is not only a dull watch for spectators but also looks unlikely to unsettle the prodigious young Slovenian, who’s happy to hitch a ride on the back of any line leading the peloton.
Instead, taking Brailsford’s footballing analogy a little further, Ineos will need something more akin to “total football” or “Bielsaball” in order to see one of their number ride into Paris in yellow again, an all-action strategy that leaves rivals unsure where the next attack is going to come from and who is going to deliver it. It may, indeed, look something like the free-wheeling approach implemented by Paul Köchli at La Vie Claire in the mid-1980s, the maverick Swiss DS telling his riders each morning, “Let’s play cycling!”, determined for them to enjoy racing, believing that their results would be better if they did.
What a prospect that would be, the Stormtroopers from Sky’s Death Star transformed into the rebels, sniping and setting ambushes. For their riders, it would almost be akin to racing like kids again, fun being paramount. For the rest of us, it would be a gloriously unpredictable watch, a Grand Tour raced as 21 Classics. Let’s just hope that Brailsford’s as good as his word…