For the first time since 2014, Team Ineos arrive on the Tour de France’s second rest day without the maillot jaune within their ranks. No matter which way they choose to spin it, this is unchartered territory for the British outfit that has become accustomed to having their way in cycling’s marquee event.
The team still have two riders inside the top five, with defending champion Geraint Thomas 1:35 down on race leader Julian Alaphilippe and Egan Bernal less than 30 seconds behind him in fifth. On paper, it’s a position that most teams would envy but for Team Ineos this is a situation in which they must now juggle the reactive with the proactive when it comes to their approach for the rest of the race as they try to chase overall victory.
In years gone by, the tactic of setting a relentless pace on the climbs would have done the trick and cracked their rivals one by one but that’s simply not a strategy they have been able to use this year. Along with questions about who is the team leader, and the fact that they don’t hold the strongest rider within the race, there are major concerns over their climbing core. In the Pyrenees, Michal Kwiatkowski and Jonathan Castrojevo lost touch with the group of favourites far earlier than expected. Even on stage 15, when the situation improved and the team had four riders in the first group, three of those were hanging on at times.
It's all created uncharted territory, and according to some commentators, the beginning of the end for this team’s Tour dominance.
Before the home nation can start to dream that their two main hopes can defeat Team Ineos and win the race, Alaphilippe and Thibaut Pinot must navigate the Alps. And with a week still to go, only a fool would write off Team Ineos. They may lack firepower, the wolves might be circling, but there is still fight in this wounded animal. Thomas will not relinquish his title without a fight, while Bernal is on the march and growing in confidence.
“There’s more than one way to win the Tour,” Thomas said on Monday’s rest day in Nîmes before heading out for a short ride.
“This situation is different and we don’t have to pull when other teams want to do it as well. We’re still in a super-strong position. Everyone has ups and downs but it’s how you deal with that. I’m confident that we’re all in great condition and I’m looking forward to some big Alpine climbs.
“For me, it’s been a slightly up and down year – and race – compared to last year, but the main thing is that I finished strongly yesterday, and I’m just itching to go and reach the Alps. I’ve got good memories of there, for obvious reasons and I’m just looking forward to it.”
Thomas can look forward both to the Alps and the yellow jersey that dangles on Alaphilippe’s shoulders but he must also look back in the rearview mirror.
Pinot is rapidly closing after wiping out the time lost in the crosswinds over two days in the Pyrenees, while Bernal has been better than the Welshman over the last two summit finishes. The memory of Thomas cracking slightly on the Tourmalet and then losing more time to Pinot in Foix will be hard to erase before the race reaches the Alps.
Brailsford’s new approach to French mentality
Twelve months ago, Dave Brailsford criticized the French mentality after one of his riders was disqualified for attempting to hit a fellow competitor and fans on the roadside booed his squad repeatedly during the race.
A year on from that astonishing comment made during the second rest day in Carcassone, the Team Ineos boss pinpointed Alaphilippe’s surprise performances as one of the main reasons the race had played out as it had. He praised the Frenchman after earlier in the race stating that he – like most – didn’t expect the Deceuninck-QuickStep rider to be in contention at this point.
“I’ve got to give the guy some credit. Ultimately, I don’t think anyone would have predicted that he would still be in yellow at this point in the race. If he pulls it off, then he’s on another level in terms of his ability. He’s been leading out sprints, going off doing his thing in the Champagne region, and if he was to win this race then blimey. Hats off to the guy. He would be one of the greatest cyclists of all time,” Brailsford said.
With regards to Pinot, perhaps the biggest threat of all, Brailsford was less forthcoming with praise. The Groupama-FDJ rider would probably see that a compliment and an indication that Team Ineos sees him as their main rival.
"He had a good couple of days in the Pyrenees,” Braislford said of a rider who had won on the Tourmalet and dropped both Bernal and Thomas two days running.
“But then you’ve got these two guys and, let’s face it, Geraint won it last year and he knows how to win the race. He finished the race brilliantly yesterday. Wout Poels was there with him and Egan went with Pinot, which was fantastic and all credit to him but when you go into the Alps and the sustained 2,000 at altitude it’s a big challenge. And you’re in the third week. That’s where the real differences are going to be made in this race. It’s the consistency that pays off, in our experience, but it could go down to the wire.”
With the Alps to come, and questions over leadership and Team Ineos' current form Brailsford will be hoping that Pinot has a bad day and that his two riders can find the needed consistency to come through and take the title. They are still among the favourites, surely, but for a team that has been the marker for precision and never appeared to contemplate doubt, that’s a lot of ifs and maybes.