Team Ineos delivered their strongest collective performance this season at the 2021 Volta a Catalunya's crucial individual time trial on Tuesday, as Rohan Dennis clinched the stage win and the British squad placed three more riders in the top ten.
For Dennis, the victory in the Volta's first flat individual time trial since 1998 was his first since the World Championships in Yorkshire and his first as a Team Ineos rider, with the Australian now eying a possible return, "if all goes well", to the Tour de France this summer.
Ineos director Brett Lancaster told Cyclingnews was it was "a bit of a test run for the Tour de France." The British team placed three more riders in the top ten of the stage, with Richie Porte and Adam Yates sixth and seventh, both at 35 seconds, while Geraint Thomas rounded out the top ten at 47 seconds.
Overall, Yates and Porte, a former Volta a Catalunya winner back in 2015, are now at fifth and sixth respectively, less than ten seconds behind new race leader João Almeida (Deceuninck-Quickstep), while Thomas is running eighth at 19 seconds.
Although Richard Carapaz, in his first race of 2021, finished off the pace at 1:20, Ineos nonetheless still have three key options overall and have established themselves as the team to beat in the Volta a Catalunya in the process.
"It's been a long time between drinks, there are a lot of young guys that are really pushing the envelope and just making me look stupid sometimes," Dennis said afterwards.
"It's great to be back on the top step. I'm not winning that much these days and every win means a lot more now."
Dennis said that his tactics for the stage's rolling terrain were to "come out of the starting gate and set a good pace on that climb, without going too deep, the same for that longer climb in the first half as well.
"I think in an ideal world I probably should have gone a little bit slower to hold things back for the lake road, and in the final half, I was completely dead just hoping everyone else dying as well. Luckily everyone else did die.
"I came home a little bit quicker than everyone else. The race was more or less won or lost on that lake road and even that final little climb didn't make much of a difference."
While Dennis said that his next race will be the Tour de Romandie and the Critérium du Dauphiné "and hopefully, if everything goes well, I'll be at the Tour," Ineos management were simply delighted with how the day had played out for the Australian and the team.
"It's been a while since Rohan had a TT win, although he was in a new team last year, he was banging on the door, and we have [Filippo] Ganna as well," Brett Lancaster told Cyclingnews.
"Paris-Nice" - where Dennis finished sixth - "didn't go as well in the TT, but we told him to stick with it and we thought this course here would really suit him."
Lancaster said that as both rider and director are living relatively close to the 18.5-kilometre rolling course in Banyoles in northern Catalonia, he and Dennis had recon'd the time trial beforehand, and that Dennis "attacked it head-on today. He's put a lot of trust in the team, we've backed him 100 per cent, and after a good season last year, with how he performed in the Giro, we're just building on that. It's super-nice."
For the rest of the Volta a Catalunya, Lancaster said, Dennis will be in working mode. We've got a lot of the Tour de France riders here and it's a bit of a test run for that," he said. "Obviously, Geraint had a pretty good ride, [Adam] Yates had an amazing ride and Richie is really good, so given how hard and steep a lot of the rest of the race is, it'll play into those guys hands."
In terms of the route, Lancaster pointed to the Pyrenees as the key stages on Wednesday and Thursday. But he warned that stage 5's final loop with an ascent to the first category Montserrat was "a nasty little circuit".
He also said that stage 6 around the hinterland of Barcelona contained "a lot of roundabouts and is very technical" and that Montjuic would be "pretty testing, so you'll want to have a good time buffer going into there.
"Almeida is a solid leader, too, so all in all it's going to be a good test."
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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