Team Ineos' line-up for the 2019 Giro d'Italia was always going to be a young one. Egan Bernal's late exclusion due to a collarbone injury doesn't change that, but it does leave the rest of the largely inexperienced group of riders without a clear leader and genuine contender to rally around.
The likes of Pavel Sivakov, Tao Geoghegan Hart, Ivan Sosa, and Eddie Dunbar represent a crop of rising talent that would be the envy of most WorldTour teams, but none is as precocious as the 22-year-old Bernal. While the Colombian is already considered a Grand Tour favourite after his debut at the Tour de France last year, the same cannot yet be said of the others.
Where that leaves them is somewhere between aimlessness and opportunity. Riding for Bernal would have been a valuable experience for the young team, of which Sosa and Dunbar are making their three-week debuts and Sivakov and Geoghegan Hart their second Grand Tour appearances. The change of plan leaves Ineos without a realistic shot at the title, which is a rarity for the British team, and, although they've never exerted the same control at the Giro as at the Tour, they'll have to take more of a backseat over the next three weeks.
Had that mattered so much to them, they could have drafted in 2018 Giro champion Chris Froome or 2018 Tour champion Geraint Thomas. Neither are anywhere near top form, but it could have provided a figurehead and also avoided a situation whereby Ineos have three leaders for the Tour. Similarly, they could have drafted in Wout Poels, who would appear to be their next best option for GC leadership after Sergio Henao's departure, but who is set to play a key support role at the Tour.
The fact they didn't disrupt that Tour core suggests that, even in their first Grand Tour as Ineos, they are more than happy to take the pressure of the pursuit of results and hand their young guns some trust and freedom. The Tour is understood to be the number one priority of new team owner Jim Ratcliffe, and before the accident it was rumoured that Bernal would be part of the plans for July, with some whispers that he might even skip the Giro.
Ineos, then, line up with an eight-man squad with an average age of just over 25. Remove 38-year-old veteran Christian Knees from the equation and that falls to 23. Leaving aside the German's 19 Grand Tour participations, the remaining seven riders have a combined total of 17 three-week races in their collective locker.
Knees and the Italian Salvatore Puccio, 29 years old with 10 Grand Tours ridden, provide the experience and domestique reliability, but the rest are all 25 or under. It's a remarkably young squad, the youngest in this year's Giro and surely one of the youngest in recent Grand Tour history.
Sivakov and Geoghegan Hart have been identified by the team as the nominal leaders. Both shone at the recent Tour of the Alps, where they finished one-two on GC, with the Russian winning one stage and the Briton two. Both will be handed the freedom to ride for GC, testing the water and seeing how long they can remain in contention against the likes of Tom Dumoulin, Vincenzo Nibali, and Primoz Roglic.
Yet this is not likely to be a rigid Ineos set-up. They certainly won't feel the burden of responsibility of controlling proceedings, and that should mean that Sosa and Dunbar are far from mere support riders. They have the talent to animate the race and the freedom to do so.
There is a certain irony in the fact that, in a team so star-studded that developing riders are often perceived to have limited opportunities, so many have such a wide range of prospects over the next three weeks. Bernal's absence cannot be dressed up as anything but a major blow, but there's silver lining waiting to shine through.
Team Ineos' Giro d'Italia line-up
Name: Pavel Sivakov
Experience: Second-year pro with one Grand Tour (2018 Vuelta)
Sivakov swept up on the U23 scene in 2017, with his only major blip being the Tour de l'Avenir, won convincingly by Bernal. The Colombian massively overshadowed him as they both turned pro with Sky in 2018, but the recent Tour of the Alps suggested the Franco-Russian is starting to pick up momentum after a tough first year with injuries.
Bernal has long been considered one of brightest talent the sport has seen, but Sivakov, with his record in 2017, is not all that far behind, and now looks to be on that trajectory to Grand Tour contender. This Giro probably comes a little early for him, given he has only ridden one Grand Tour and failed to finish it, but there's no ruling out a push for the top 10. Confidence will be high after the Alps, which appeared to be a learning curve in tactics and riding for victory, and that process, at the very least, should only be enhanced in Italy.
Pavel Sivakov puts on the jersey for best young rider at the Tour of the Alps.
Name: Tao Geoghegan Hart
Experience: Third-year pro with one Grand Tour (2018 Vuelta)
Geoghegan Hart may not be as precocious as Sivakov but he has long been considered a big talent and stood out in the U23 ranks with Axel Merckx's team. He has enjoyed a steady start to life at Ineos, maturing consistently and taking on bigger and bigger challenges in terms of his race programme. He has shone as a domestique so far, notably for Bernal in Colombia and California and even more so for Thomas at last year's Dauphine. The Alps was a rare taste of leadership – albeit co-leadership that morphed into riding for Sivakov – and the Briton has the personality and already the stature among his teammates to be a leader figure.
Geoghegan Hart, an all-rounder, should hold his own in the time trials but the question is how far he can go in the mountains. Sivakov was the more explosive when the road went uphill at the Tour of the Alps and appears the more natural climber. Geoghegan Hart has driven the Sky train up Alpine cols but has said he wants to one day become the protected rider in that line. The third week of the Giro could provide some indication of his future prospects.
Name: Ivan Sosa
Experience: Second-year pro and Grand Tour debutant
Hot on the heels of Bernal, Sosa is another young Colombian to have been brought through by Gianni Savio at the Androni-Giocattoli team and sent on to bigger and better things. After winning the Vuelta a Burgos last year he agreed to sign for Trek-Segafredo – and even announced it – before he changed agents and Sky swooped before pen had been put to paper.
Sosa started strongly with second overall at the Tour Colombia in February, where he had support from Bernal. He then repaid the favour handsomely at Paris-Nice and the Volta a Catalunya and was set to do the same at the Giro.
If Sivakov and Geoghegan Hart are the two leaders named by Ineos, Sosa can't be too far behind. He is likely to struggle in the time trials but is a gifted climber and will find fertile ground in the second half of the race. If this is too early for a sustained GC push – he has never ridden longer than 10 days – then a stage win is far from inconceivable.
Name: Eddie Dunbar
Position: Climber/free role
Experience: Second-year pro and Grand Tour debutant
Another one who is considered a future potential Grand Tour contender. The Irishman was snapped up by Sky when Aqua Blue Sport folded in August last year and now gets his first Grand Tour start – albeit unexpectedly. While the others in this line-up had been preparing for the Giro, Dunbar is essentially Bernal's replacement, securing his spot after an impressive performance at the recent Tour de Yorkshire.
Dunbar will gain valuable experience of a three-week race but don't expect him just to ride round. He's a naturally attacking rider who likes to animate proceedings. That's not necessarily what you'd most readily associate with Team Ineos, and he was told by his bosses that he should ride more ‘steadily' after a spritely display at last year's Giro della Toscana. That said, this is a squad that sort of signals a new dawn for the British team.
Eddie Dunbar on the attack at the Tour de Yorkshire
Name: Jhonatan Narvaez
Experience: Second-year pro and Grand Tour debutant
Another of the team's growing South American contingent, and the third rider in this line-up – after Geoghegan Hart and Dunbar – to have come through Axel Merckx's development set-up. While Sosa was poached from Trek, Narvaez was poached from QuickStep, bought out of the second year of his contract as Patrick Lefevere searched for a new sponsor.
The Ecuadorian is more of an all-rounder than the Colombian climbers at Ineos – stronger on the flat and against the clock – and while this will be a case of gaining experience, a role as a versatile domestique should be tested over the next three weeks.
Name: Sebastian Henao
Position: Climbing domestique
Experience: Sixth-year pro with five Grand Tours
Another of the team's South American – and largely Colombian – contingent that was lined up from early this season to support Bernal at the Giro. Sebastian Henao is only 25 but is now in his sixth year with Team Ineos, although he has not displayed the same level of talent as his cousin, Sergio, who rode for the team until this year.
The Giro is the only three-week race in which Sebastian Henao, who provides support in the mountains, has been used by Ineos, and he returns this month after missing out on a Grand Tour ride last year.
Name: Christian Knees
Experience: 16th-year pro about to ride his 20th Grand Tour
Knees is one of the most experienced riders in the pro peloton and one of Team Ineos' most dependable domestiques. He joined the team in 2011 from Milram, helping them win their first Tour with Bradley Wiggins before becoming one of Chris Froome's favoured lieutenants, forming part of the team that won the Tour and Vuelta in 2017 and the Giro in 2018.
The German is seen as a reliable pair of hands and will be there to help position riders and put the work in on the flatter terrain, not to mention sharing his experience and bringing some much-needed balance to the squad.
Name: Salvatore Puccio
Experience: Eighth-year pro with 10 Grand Tours
The Italian is another rider who has carved out a role for himself as a reliable domestique at the team, with whom he has spent his whole career. He has never ridden the Tour but has become a fixture of the Giro and Vuelta squads. This will be his sixth straight appearance at his ‘home' Grand Tour.
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