Ben Swift was the father figure, leading a group of riders who were all at least a decade his junior. The British champion’s 34 years of age skewed the overall average but it was still the most youthful in the race at 23.5.
The youngest of all, 19-year-old Magnus Sheffield, was only six when Swift turned professional back in 2009.
“Magnus is near enough closer to my kid than he is to me,” Swift joked when speaking to Cyclingnews after the race.
At least the previous day he had some company, with 38-year-old Cameron Wurf also in the squad for Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
“Now we’ve got rid of him the average age has come down a lot,” Swift added.
Along with Sheffield, there were two more neo-pros in Ben Turner (22) and Kim Heiduk (21), while Tom Pidcock (22) and Ethan Hayter (23) shared leadership but are still in the early years of their careers and development. The eldest of the Ineos ‘kids’ was Jhonatan Narvaez at the ripe old age of 24.
These riders are considered the future of the British team's Classics department.
Ineos Grenadiers have perhaps had more spring success over the years than they’re given credit for, with a couple of Monuments and some wins on the cobbles, but they have arguably lacked a clear identity and the ambition of their Grand Tour squad. Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard carried the flag for a few years, while Michal Kiwatkowski never quite went all-in on one-day racing and Gianni Moscon never quite unfurled his full potential.
Now and for the future, things seem different.
“You can see we’re building this,” deputy team principal Rod Ellingworth told Cyclingnews in Kuurne.
“We’ve been thinking about this for a while now and we’ve got a really good group together.”
Tom Pidcock is the obvious spearhead, bursting onto the scene at last year’s Classics and now with seemingly limitless possibilities before him. He has strong relationships with Hayter, who can also offer something slightly different and sprint-oriented in terms of leadership, and Turner, who is seen as key support engine for the future.
US neo-pro Sheffield was already considered one of the hottest prospects in the sport even before he soloed to a stage victory at the recent Ruta del Sol, while less is known of the German youngster Heiduk. The Ecuadorian Narvaez, meanwhile, is carrying the Classics torch for South America and his progress can be charted not just by his visibility this weekend but also more mathematically by how close to the finish of Kuurne his long-range breaks have been caught in the past two years.
“It’s a team that can certainly grow and learn, to go and win Classics,” Pidcock told Cyclingnews.
Together they managed no better than 18th place at the Omloop and 29th at Kuurne, yet there was a real buzz around the team following Sunday’s race.
“The way they raced today was fantastic. It just shows if you give them the opportunity, what they can do,” said Ellingworth, who also singled out new director Roger Hammond for praise.
“Roger has done a great job with them and his experience has been brilliant. They got it spot on today.”
Pidcock and Narvaez had already caught the eye at the Omloop as the only ones able to follow Wout Van Aert and Tiesj Benoot’s assault on the Berendries. Although it was also those two who went up the road again at Kuurne, it was a wider collective effort.
'They feed off each other'
In a race that is always liable to culminate in a bunch sprint the Ineos’ youngsters were noticeable in trying to split the race as it dipped into Wallonia for a trio of new climbs with around 80km to go. They were to the fore en masse again as the race hit its more familiar stomping ground of the Kruisberg, Kluisberg, and Trieu, where Pidcock and Narvaez got into a break that almost went all the way.
Pidcock was in fact dropped from the break, and if there was a negative point it stemmed from self-confessed mistakes from their leader. However, despite the added disappointment of Narvaez getting all the way to the final 100 metres in the final three, only to be passed by charging sprinters, there was seemingly nothing that could dampen the mood at the Ineos bus.
“We rode really well as a team today. It was a great show of what we can do. When we ride like that as a team, results will come,” Turner told Cyclingnews.
Sheffield could hardly suppress his smile. “We decided to hit it over climbs and really took the race in our hands,” he said. “It’s a lot more fun to race like that rather than being on the back foot. It was just really fun today, I have to admit.”
As for Pidcock, “phenomenal” was the word he reached for, in describing the collective improvement from Saturday.
“This has been a really good sign for the future Classics – for this year and years beyond.”
But what did dad think?
“They’re an excitable bunch,” Swift said.
“The way they race is a lot different to how we’ve ridden in the past. They bring a lot of freshness to the team. It’s quite exciting, the way they race, they’re not intimated. You saw it today – they get stuck in.
“They feed off each other and it breeds naturally. It helps that they’re as talented as they are, but the way we’re racing is quite refreshing for this team, I think.”
As for Swift’s role in all this, it doesn’t sound like he’s having to hold their hands at all – only maybe to temper their enthusiasm once in a while. The former Milan-San Remo podium finisher has grown into a road captain role since rejoining the team in 2020 and appears to be thriving in it.
“It’s not about me saying ‘do this, do that’. It’s leading by example, the way you ride and everything around it,” he said. “People think you need to say ‘ABCD’, but it’s not that, you just integrate into the team. Maybe that’s just because it comes a bit more naturally.”
One thing’s for certain: “It keeps me young.”
The Opening Weekend is the perfect place to blood new Classics talent, with results not at a premium and the bigger prizes of the spring still a few weeks down the line. Dwars door Vlaanderen champion Dylan van Baarle will come back into the fold to play a leading role, while Luke Rowe and Michal Kwiatkowski could be on hand for the bigger races, but many of these young guns will have the chance to do it all over again.
As Sheffield put it – although it could have come from any of them: “If we continue racing like that, eventually it will pay off.”
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Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist, and former deputy editor of Cyclingnews, who has seven years’ experience covering professional cycling. He has a modern languages degree from Durham University and has been able to put it to some use in what is a multi-lingual sport, with a particular focus on French and Spanish-speaking riders. Away from cycling, Patrick spends most of his time playing or watching other forms of sport - football, tennis, trail running, darts, to name a few, but he draws the line at rugby.