Egan Bernal is set to turn his attention to the Giro d'Italia this year, as Ineos Grenadiers send Geraint Thomas, Tao Geoghegan Hart, and Richard Carapaz to the Tour de France. Meanwhile, newly-signed Adam Yates will be targeting the Vuelta a España.
Team manager Dave Brailsford spoke to the media on Wednesday to outline the team's Grand Tour plans for 2021, and how they'll balance the ambitions of so many potential leaders.
Brailsford pointed to the two lengthy time trials on the Tour de France route as an ideal opportunity for Thomas to repeat his overall victory from 2018. However, he also acknowledged that Carapaz would have to find time elsewhere, suggesting the former Giro d'Italia winner could be an attacking presence as the team look to build on an 'expansive' style of racing that took root at last year's Giro.
Geoghegan Hart, meanwhile, toyed with the idea of defending his Giro crown but it was decided the best step for his development would be to make his Tour de France debut.
Bernal hasn't been ruled out of the Tour, but a decision on whether he goes there or to the Vuelta a España will be made depending on the outcome of the Giro. Likewise, the Tour leaders could go on to join Yates and neo-pro Tom Pidcock at the Vuelta.
"We asked ourselves, 'Do we put all our top riders in the Tour? Or spread them across the three?'," Brailsford said. "I think this gives us a nice balance across the races."
The decision to steer Bernal away from the Tour, where he was victorious in 2019, comes after the Colombian abandoned last year's race with a back injury, from which he's still recovering. Although the Giro, in theory, gives him less time to reach full strength, Brailsford suggested the 24-year-old, who has spoken of his desire to target the Giro in the past, needed a breath of fresh air.
"When he arrived in Europe then at our team, he had a big smile every time he raced. The thing you noticed first with Egan was his big smile, and he was an aggressive and charismatic racer. It's very important that he finds that joy of racing again," Brailsford said.
"From my point of view – and the team's, and his – it's all about getting that smile back on his face, enjoying being a bike racer. If he does that, he'll get the results, but it's not focusing only on the outcome; he has to focus on the whole of the process.
"He's a very ambitious guy and I think he has to find… or we have to support him to really enjoy his racing again, and the rest will look after itself, I'm sure of that."
Bernal will be joined in Italy by fellow youngster Pavel Sivakov, who placed ninth there on his debut in 2019, and also by his fellow Colombian Daniel Martínez, a new signing from EF Education-Nippo. World time trial champion Filippo Ganna, who won four stages last year, will also be back with the rainbow skinsuit.
Tour de France
As for the Tour, Brailsford stopped short of confirming the whole team but did name the riders who were part of the 'Tour stream', with Richie Porte, Laurens De Plus, Michał Kwiatkowski, Jonathan Castroviejo, Luke Rowe, and Rohan Dennis all in line to feature in the support cast.
The trio of leaders – not to mention Porte, who made the podium last year - gives the team multiple options, and Brailsford spoke of using all their tools, rather than the 'road will decide' mentality of previous years.
"With us not winning the Tour last year, and coming back in more of a challenging role, it gives you the freedom to think about it differently and come up with the right creative strategy for how to win the race," he said.
That strategy is set to involve Thomas building his race on the time trials - with 27 kilometres on stage 5 and 31 kilometres on stage 20 - while Carapaz takes a more aggressive approach in the mountains and Geoghegan Hart falls somewhere in between.
"The great thing about Richard is he's not scared to take the race on. If he wins the Tour this year, then how does he win it? He's not going to sit back and wait for the time trials, so he's going to have to take opportunities in other areas," Brailsford said.
"So you explore that, and how it contributes to a team approach with the other quality riders we have, and it makes for a very exciting and motivating prospect. Richard is a really important part of that strategy for us, in terms of the way he might go about the race this year."
Brailsford, however, was adamant Thomas had as good a chance as anyone and dismissed suggestions his 35 years of age will be a hindrance in a race won last year by UAE Team Emirates 21-year-old Tadej Pogačar.
"I wouldn't say it's his last shot at the Tour. When you get into your 30s, it's how hungry you are and how much drive you still have inside you. If you still have that burning desire, then you can do the training and make all the other sacrifices," he said.
"I don't think there's a physical component to it - it's more of a mental thing. We spoke last night before Bessèges, and he was super excited, he couldn't wait to start, he was like a junior again. Absolutely it's possible."
A more adventurous approach
Spreading multiple leaders and multiple racing styles across the three Grand Tours comes at a time when Brailsford is looking to remould the identity of his team.
Starting out in Sky black in 2010, they soon became a dominant force in stage racing, and some would say a suffocating one, hoarding the top talent and guarding tight control over the racing. However, last year's Giro d'Italia, where Ineos bounced back from Thomas' early exit to win seven stages and the overall, was, in Brailsford's own words, a "game-changer".
He spoke in Milan of a new philosophy under the new ownership of Ineos boss Jim Ratcliffe, and it's something he's still talking about three months on.
"We get a lot of data about the fans and how people see us, and there was a big change in people's attitudes, which was really interesting. We discussed it a lot over the winter, in terms of who we are as a team and how we can continue to develop a more open racing style this season," he said.
"It's not a judgement on the past. We won a lot and I'm very proud of what we did. It's a recognition that the sport is changing, and we want to be at the forefront of that. If you just go after winning, winning, winning, it becomes a very, very intense environment.
"That's great, but equally, rather than it being about not losing, it's about going after opportunities. When you do that, it's like an adventure rather than a challenge or a threat, and it liberates a racer's mind. That's what we want to go after - being ready at any moment to seize the initiative and be a bit more expansive."
Brailsford, nevertheless, didn't go as far as saying 'losing is OK' - "I don't think I'll ever get there," he joked - and also suggested that the mountain train might still be "the right tool for the job" in certain situations.
"We're not reckless. The greatest and most charismatic racers of all time were all intelligent. They won a lot but they were clever. It's all part of an expansive approach.
"It's extremely motivating and exciting. Our riders are really upbeat to pin a number on and start racing again - more so than for quite a while, I'd say. Always great to start a season but there's a real sense of 'let's get it on'."
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