Was stage six a missed opportunity for Ineos Grenadiers in their bid for Giro d'Italia glory?

The name of the game for Ineos in today's stage was to make sure Geraint Thomas was safe

Three years ago at the Giro d’Italia, Ineos Grenadiers used the white gravel roads of Tuscany to attack their rivals and strengthen their grip on the race. Having just ended the opening week in the pink jersey, Egan Bernal instructed his troops to lay the hammer down, and Filippo Ganna duly obliged by setting a destructive pace on the dirt. Jhonatan Narváez, Gianni Moscon and Dani Martínez then took over to further rip the race to shreds and drop GC rival Remco Evenepoel, before Bernal launched his own attack, gaining time over all of his rivals and extending his lead at the top of the overall classification. 

It was a thrilling stage and significant in terms of the GC race, with a major contender in Evenepoel being effectively taken out of contention. So it can’t help but feel a little underwhelming to see such little action among the favourites upon the Giro’s return to the Tuscan strade bianche today. 

Ineos once again set about taking control on the gravel, and the sense of déjà vu intensified by the presence of two of the same riders, Ganna and Narváez, who did the same in 2021. But this time, the ploy was defensive rather than aggressive, with no final attack or bid for time coming from the leader Geraint Thomas. They kept him right towards the front of the peloton, which whittled down to a much smaller size following their efforts, but swelled again in the aftermath as the team declined to press on. By the finish, there were still 40 riders in the peloton, without a single GC candidate missing. 

Was this defensive approach the correct one from Ineos? The relative gentleness of the parours compared to the equivalent stage in 2021 reduced the possibility of making big time gains on GC, one in which the old adage of being a stage where you can’t win the race, but can lose it, held true. While the sectors might have been too mild and too far from the finish to help make attacks stick, they still posed the threat of punctures, even in the dry, dusty conditions of the day. Keeping your leader towards the very front of the race, surrounded by domestiques and out of trouble was therefore of paramount importance, and Ineos managed to do this successfully. 

Thomas certainly seemed happy with how the stage went. It was a great job all day, to be honest,” were his satisfied words at the finish. “The whole team, everyone did an amazing job. They kept us at the front, out of trouble, took the lead on the sectors when we had to just to make it as safe as possible, and dictate what we were doing.” That would suggest that there was never a plan to try an attack today and that the name of the game was staying out of trouble. Put simply, it was classic Ineos Grenadiers, or Team Sky of old: control the race, stifle attacks, err on the side of caution and show everyone else who’s boss.

But might today have been a lost opportunity for them? After all, the staple Ineos approach was born at a time when they had the top GC candidate at Grand Tours and could afford to ride defensively. When up against a foe like Tadej Pogačar, they have to be imaginative if they are serious about getting the better of him and pounce on opportunities when they present themselves. On the final sector, the work of their powerful domestique Magnus Sheffield managed to isolate Pogačar, while Thomas still had both him and Thymen Arensman for company, but they eased up the pace after arriving back onto the tarmac and allowed the UAE Team Emirates reinforcements to arrive. Might this have been a chance to attack him?

While gaining time on a rider as accomplished on gravel roads as two-time Strade Bianche winner Tadej Pogačar was always going to be a long shot, it does seem fair to say that Ineos let slip a chance at a stage win. Although their pace on the gravel was enough to bring the three remaining breakaway riders, Julian Alaphilippe (Soudal-QuickStep), Luke Plapp (Jayco-AlUla) and ultimate stage winner Pelayo Sánchez (Movistar) to within 1-15 after the final gravel sector, and further down to just 18 seconds after the final tarmacked hill of the day, their unwillingness to press on allowed the gap to grow again and that trio were able to survive comfortably. “We weren't bothered about chasing the break,” explained Thomas, “but obviously if it did come back, Jonny [Narváez] was going to have a good go.” 

Narváez did indeed have a good go in the end, winning the sprint in the reduced peloton, but due to their failure to bring back the break it was only a sprint for fifth rather than the win. The Ecuadorian has already shown great sprinting form by outgunning the fast finish of Pogačar to take stage one, and so would have been a favourite for the stage win if there was one up for grabs, but stage wins have never been Ineos’ priority. They’re a team that is used to winning Grand Tours and hunting for less than that can feel beneath them. Perhaps, though, given what they’re up against in trying to defeat the best cyclist in the world, it might be worth reconsidering that mindset for this race. 

As for UAE Team Emirates, they too chose to ride on the defensive today. This was a hard day for them to control, with the break taking an age to go clear; and once it did, they had to be mindful of the danger posed by Plapp, who, as a quality climber not far adrift at 2-33 on GC, was not someone they could afford to allow too much time. Their resources stretched, and they weren’t able to offer Pogačar so much support on the gravel sectors, though he was able to defend himself happily enough and was never without a teammate for long. 

Pogačar has demonstrated an insatiable appetite so far this race, so it was perhaps more of a surprise to not see him attack than would have been for him to try one. Like Thomas, he too described it as a “perfect” situation, and a stage that he is “happy that is over”, seeing it as a day to survive rather than make gains. “It was enjoyable to ride again these gravel roads”, he said, before admitting that he “prefers Strade Bianche” —  perhaps referring to that race’s more difficult, selective parcours that would have suited him better or how this being part of a stage race, he felt obliged to curb his usual instincts and ride defensively. 

Neither Pogačar nor Thomas will have their teams to hide behind tomorrow as they take on the first time trial of the race. While both UAE Team Emirates and Ineos Grenadiers were in defensive mode today, that might change based on the outcome of tomorrow’s stage.

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