Words by Jeremy Whittle | Photo by SWpix.com
Another Grand Tour near-miss for Ineos Grenadiers has only served to highlight the British team’s need for a proven winner
Throwing no shade on Geraint Thomas and his bitter disappointment in the Giro d’Italia, but losing the leader’s jersey in the final mountain stage of a Grand Tour once is tough luck. But doing it twice in succession, well, that looks clumsy, at best.
Ineos Grenadiers will be taking stock of their second painful defeat in the corsa rosa. In 2022, it was Jai Hindley who dealt the decisive blow, on that occasion to Ineos’s race leader, Richard Carapaz, high on the Passo Fedaia. The Ecuadorean, like Thomas 12 months on, couldn’t respond when he most needed to and the Giro was lost.
Last weekend, Slovenian Primož Roglič took his turn in the role of assassin. On both occasions the result was the same. Ineos Grenadiers, despite the very best efforts of their race leader, lost a Grand Tour at the eleventh hour that they should probably have won.
A year ago, the headline on the team’s website read: “Gutsy Carapaz slips to second.” Twelve months on, it was almost the same. “Thomas slips to second after gutsy Giro battle,” it said.
The team’s defenders will say “But look at the consistency — you have to be in it to win it,” etc, etc, which, of course, is true. But you also have to know how, once you get in a winning position, to clinch the deal, which was something that Team Sky became experts at.
To reiterate, this is no comment on the riders or their efforts, but as the team continues to “flirt” (as his manager Patrick Lefevere put it) with Soudal Quickstep’s Remco Evenepoel, it is clear too that they have still not replaced the Nico Portal-Chris Froome killer instinct at the heart of the team that brought the then Team Sky so much Grand Tour success.
Thomas, of course, rode his heart out in the Giro. He always does. He was unfortunate in some senses: he lost in-form team mates Tao Geoghegan Hart and Pavel Sivakov to injury, while the absence of Evenepoel, following his positive test for Covid-19, played more to Roglic’s advantage than it did to his.
But as the race wore on, Jumbo-Visma seemed to grow stronger, while Ineos Grenadiers grew more depleted.
The reality is that right now, Ineos Grenadiers are playing catch-up as teams like Jumbo-Visma, UAE Team Emirates, Evenepoel’s Soudal Quickstep and even Bora Hansgrohe hoover up the top spot on the podium in Italy, France and Spain.
Thomas’s performance in Italy was immense and showcased his enduring class, but it also reaffirmed that sometimes, that’s simply not enough.
In the Giro’s final race against the clock, on Monte Lussari, it certainly wasn’t. Even after a mechanical issue, Roglič, to use Thomas’s own language, still “smashed” him.
Losing, in a dramatic last-ditch reversal, is of course, part of sport. To be fair, Jim Ratcliffe’s cycling team have also won two Giros in recent years through Geoghegan Hart in 2020 and Egan Bernal, a year later.
Both Carapaz and Thomas have finished on the Tour de France podium in recent seasons. But the near-misses in recent Grand Tours are also beginning to rack up and a maillot jaune, to follow on from Egan Bernal’s in 2019, continues to elude them.
The team remains the wealthiest sponsor in cycling and from Tom Pidcock to Dani Martínez, has a slew of highly talented riders. But maybe that is the problem. At Evenepoel’s Soudal Quickstep, the house is staked on one big name, Evenepoel, who either succeeds, or occasionally fails.
Cycling is such a brutal sport that it seems churlish, even mean, to criticise teams for under-performing. Rightly, we celebrate those who suffer so much, for so long, yet still prevail.
Isn’t it enough surely to simply admire the resilience and durability that a rider, such as Geraint Thomas, manifests in spades? In the past, maybe it was, but in the era of billionaire-owned, state-sponsored WorldTour teams, being there, playing the role of “plucky loser”, is no longer enough.
As Dave Brailsford himself said, almost a decade ago, in July 2014: “When I started out we were plucky losers. We were average-stroke-poor plucky losers. And yet, 10, 15 years later, we are a nation of sporting winners. There are difficult decisions and you have to keep on pushing, pushing, pushing.”
So, beyond pulling off a remarkable time trial performance, how was Primož Roglič able to reverse the direction of travel in the 2023 Giro? Thomas had taken time out of the Slovenian in both the second time trial and in the mountains. Yet those precious and hard fought 29 seconds weren’t enough of a gap, and in hindsight, when they arrived at the foot of the awful climb to Monte Lussari, both Roglič and Thomas knew full well that the maglia rosa was still in play.
So how did Ineos Grenadiers lose the Giro, again? Did Roglič con them into complacency, even though they knew of his theatrics? Could Thomas and his team have taken more time out of Roglič at the moments that he faltered? Did the sparring match at the finish of the stage to Tre Cime de Lavaredo cost Thomas too much?
Perhaps all of those elements did enough to undermine Thomas’ self-belief as, in lengthening shadows, he rolled away from Saturday’s start ramp. Maybe though, he was just weary. Roglič in contrast, seemed fully in the zone, attacking the climb with gusto. After the stage, he said: “This says who I am. I always have hope and fight on. That’s the story of my Giro.”
That’s why the pressure on Ineos Grenadiers to secure Remco Evenepoel is likely to have increased following this year’s Giro. If he lets his star rider leave for the British team, it will be a loss of face for Patrick Lefevere, but a huge boost to the British team, as they still seek to rekindle former glories.
Ultimately, it may come down to Evenepoel himself.
Faced with the choice of staying with a team that is struggling to bridge from a culture steeped in Classics racing to a team capable of supporting a Grand Tour contender, or a team with longstanding Grand Tour pedigree that needs a driven young leader to complete the jigsaw, the opportunity may be too good to turn down. History suggests that Ineos usually get what they want. But Lefevere is sure to exact a high price.