Success and setbacks: Analysing a complex day for Ineos Grenadiers at the Giro d'Italia

Jhonathan Narváez might have secured a stage win, but it was a day of mixed fortunes for the British team

Ineos Grenadiers’ great, implausible mission this Giro d'Italia is to work out a way  to defeat Tadej Pogačar. While the Slovenian is far and away the favourite to win the maglia rosa, in Geraint Thomas Ineos have in their roster the man who is the clear stand-out as the best of the rest. In fact, Thomas is the only other rider competing to have won a Grand Tour in the past, and is a seasoned pro when it comes to mounting GC bids. While defeating Pogačar may seem like an impossible task, you sense that if anyone can, it’s Thomas.

Ineos is not a team that likes to settle for podium finishes. Their illustrious history as the squad which dominated the Tour de France during the 2010s created a sense of expectation they still possess now, even since Pogačar’s UAE Team Emirates and Visma-Lease a Bike have overtaken them. However hard the circumstances might be at this Giro, they will be riding to win, not merely second place.

The way they rode in the peloton during today’s opening stage reflected their ambitions. Though they did not do any work setting the pace, leaving UAE Team Emirates to take to the front, they did let their presence be shown immediately behind, surrounding their rivals’ white shirts with their own red colours. As a statement, it seemed to be telling UAE that they weren’t going to play into their hands by offering them help but at the same time were ready to strike at any moment. The Ineos who riders massed towards the front was full of quality, too, making a line-up that certainly rivals UAE’s. Thomas is backed up by quality climbers such as Thymen Arensman and Tobias Foss, while a formidable engine room is led by Filippo Ganna and Magnus Sheffield. 

And then there’s Jhonatan Narváez. To the surprise of most, the Ecuadorian was the only rider able to stay with Pogačar when he launched his inevitable attack on the uncategorised climb of San Vito a few kilometres from the finish, and stayed with him all the way to the top. Even as he was forced to do all the work during the run-in to the finale, and saw Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) join them, the Slovenian must have believed he had the beating of them in a sprint — but not so. Narváez stayed in his slipstream when he opened up the sprint, then had the legs to accelerate past him before the line to take victory. 

While it means little in the context of the GC race save for denying Pogačar a few more bonus seconds (Narváez is a puncheur rather than a climber, and will lose time in the mountains), the result is still a triumph for Ineos Grenadiers. Given the way he’s been riding all season, there is a feeling that Pogačar is untouchable, and that this whole Giro will be a procession for him. To inflict a defeat on him like this questions that narrative, and shows that he is in fact beatable. 

In the context of Ineos’ season, the victory is also a major morale boost. Things haven’t been going great for them this season, with Tom Pidcock’s victory at Amstel Gold the only highlight of an underwhelming classics campaign, and Carlos Rodríguez overall victory at the Tour de Romandie their sole stage race title of the year so far. Though decent results for most teams, they are hardly enough to suggest they can compete with the very best, and pale in comparison to the many successes enjoyed by UAE Team Emirates and Visma-Lease a Bike this year. On an episode of his podcast leading up to the Giro, Thomas spoke about how important it is to keep up a high morale within a team during a Grand Tour, and few things are more guaranteed to boost that than defeating the best rider in the world.

Thomas himself will be happy with how his stage played out, too. Though he wasn’t able to follow Pogačar’s attack, no other GC rival did either, and Narváez’s presence and his refusal to work with Pogačar helped limit his losses, as he ultimately finished ten seconds behind in a group of favourites about 20 riders in size. And though any time loss is undesirable, Thomas will be well aware that this kind of terrain is much more favourable to Pogačar. If he is to challenge him for the pink jersey, it will be in the high mountains and the time trials, not stages like this. 

Despite these successes, there is one blot on the day that, in the grand scheme of things, might prove to be the most consequential outcome. On the category two Colle Maddalena hill, their climber Thymen Arensman was dropped from the peloton. Though he dug deep, he was not able to rejoin on the subsequent descent and run-in to the finish, and ended up losing 2-17. Given his recent record at Grand Tours, in which he has registered sixth-place overall finishes at both last year’s Giro and the Vuelta a España from the year before, that came as a nasty surprise for Ineos, and the Dutchman will surely be more subdued in the team’s celebrations this evening. 

Although Thomas is the team’s outright GC leader, Arensman has a very key role to play as their number two man, and the team will surely have hoped to keep both of them as high up on GC as possible, to give them multiple cards to play as they plot to defeat Pogačar. He’s not out of GC contention yet, and it’ll be hoped that whatever ailed him today can be overcome, but if he sheds more time on tomorrow’s mountain top finish at Oropa then his hopes of being involved in the GC fight could already be over. 

That will be cause for concern for Ineos Grenadiers, but, as the spotting cliche goes, they will be taking the positive tonight. Narváez has proven that Pogačar is beatable: now Thomas has to prove it in the GC race.

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