Will the road decide team leadership at the Ineos Grenadiers, or will the management have to?
Ineos Grenadiers are in an almost perfect position as the Giro approaches its halfway point. But difficult decisions about the hierarchy of their riders may await the British team
The finale of stage 10 of the 2023 Giro d’Italia, which took place in Viareggio on the Tuscan coast, was an object lesson in how cycling works. In this sport, first comes cooperation, then suspicion and finally disunion or even betrayal. EF Education-Easypost rider Magnus Cort was an equal partner with Israel-Premier Tech’s Derek Gee and Alessandro De Marchi of Jayco-Alula in the long breakaway of the day, until he wasn’t. The three riders (initially four, before mountains points hunter Davide Bais dropped back to the peloton) formed an alliance ahead of the peloton, and shared the workload in order to prevent Astana bringing it back together for their sprinter Mark Cavendish. The first goal of any break is not to be caught; however the final aim of every rider within it – to win the bike race – is incompatible with ongoing cooperation. Cort sat on his erstwhile allies in the final couple of kilometres and allowed them to spend themselves in the enterprise of towing him to the finish, where he easily outsprinted them. There can only be one winner in a bike race.
This is a fact that the Ineos Grenadiers management may be pushing to the backs of their minds for the moment. There’s enough going on with the terrible weather, covid positives, crashes and snow on the high mountain passes, and with a very probable day for the sprinters tomorrow and a likely quiet day on Thursday, the question of team leadership at the British team can be put on ice for another 48 hours at least.
Evenepoel versus Roglič has turned into Ineos Grenadiers versus the world. Ineos Grenadiers haven’t been unscathed by the 2023 Giro d’Italia – Filippo Ganna contracted Covid and withdrew after stage seven – but after a weekend that was chaotic even by Giro standards and more tumult today, they have emerged in an extremely strong position. They sit first and third overall, with Geraint Thomas in pink and Tao Geoghegan Hart just five seconds behind. It’s possible that the only other realistic candidate for victory at the moment is Primož Roglič, in second, two seconds behind Thomas. Fourth-placed João Almeida has been complaining of feeling sick; fifth-placed Andreas Leknessund, whose time gains came in a break, will only fall further behind; Damiano Caruso is in sixth, already 1:28 down; Lennard Kämna is the only other rider within two minutes. Looking at the various strengths of the riders in the top 10, it might be hard to avoid drawing the conclusion that only Roglič or Covid can stand in the Ineos Grenadiers’ way.
Read more: The Giro's race of survival continues before the mountains have even arrived
To further underline the British team’s current position of strength, they have five riders in the top 11 riders on GC. Pavel Sivakov in eighth, Thymen Arensman in 10th and Laurens De Plus in 11th will be put to work as climbing domestiques rather than as the third, fourth and fifth prong of an Ineos quindent, but only Roglič’s Jumbo-Visma outfit looks anywhere near as formidable.
Of course, more covid cases could change everything, but Ineos Grenadiers must now be looking at the second half of the Giro with a tweaked strategy from the original. Before the race started, the talk was of Evenepoel and Roglič being the two strongest riders on paper, while Ineos Grenadiers could combine their strength in depth with the element of surprise. However, circumstances have changed and Plan A will likely be to ride defensively through week two at the very least, the better to ascertain just how strong Roglič is, and to squeeze a few more gaps into the top 10 on the Crans Montana stage on Friday. For the first time since the late 2010s, we face the prospect of an Ineos train in the high mountains of a Grand Tour. This strategy will suit Ineos perfectly, and it’s hard to see where any disruption to it will come from. Soudal-Quick Step have been decapitated, UAE Team Emirates have a sick leader, Kämna’s Bora-Hansgrohe team are down to six; perhaps Bahrain Victorious can cause a surprise between Caruso, Jack Haig and Santiago Buitrago, all in the top 15.
Ineos Grenadiers may be looking no further than Crans Montana on Friday, but the imposing bulk of that mountain and the stormy clouds that have followed the Giro almost since day one are obscuring the fact that at some point a decision will have to be made about which of their riders is the leader of the team. If Roglič weren’t so strong and well-placed, they might be able to let the road decide. But while imposing a mountain train on the race will be good for Thomas and Geoghegan Hart, who seem almost perfectly matched in terms of strength and are both climbing well, it will also be good for Roglič. It’s possible that Roglič learned enough from pacing Tadej Pogačar around France for three weeks during the 2020 Tour before losing the race lead in a penultimate-day time trial that he may have ideas of his own with a strategy like this.
Having two riders high on the general classification is generally better than one, though it doesn’t always work out that way. When Ineos were Team Sky, they came first and second at the 2012 Tour de France with Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, but there was little harmony behind the scenes and Froome made some reckless moves in the mountain stages which eventually came to naught but which ran the risk of undermining the team’s strong position. In the 2015 Giro, Astana had two riders contending for victory – Fabio Aru and Mikel Landa – but instead of focusing on beating race leader Alberto Contador, they worked more or less separately and ended up in second and third. And Tao Geoghegan Hart had a fantastic view of the Sunweb team coming second and third behind him in the 2020 Giro d’Italia with Jai Hindley and Wilco Kelderman. Sunweb made a brave call in allowing Hindley to follow Geoghegan Hart on stage 20 to Sestriere instead of waiting for pink jersey Kelderman when he was dropped, but in the end the Ineos rider prevailed.
Neither Thomas nor Geoghegan Hart has as strong an individualistic streak as their old leader Froome, and with so many high mountain stages to come, we have plenty to learn about how good each rider’s form actually is. But if they both continue to ride as strongly as they have so far, who will want to sacrifice their chance of a victory they are strong enough for? Thomas had to sit back and watch his team-mate Egan Bernal win the 2019 Tour while he came second, and at 36, he has few chances left to win just one more Grand Tour. Geoghegan Hart has struggled with bad luck and injuries – he’s had one good chance so far to win a Grand Tour, in a seven-year career, and may not wish to miss a second. Both riders are out of contract at the end of 2023.
At the moment, all seems harmonious, and neither rider is likely to turn on the other as Magnus Cort turned on his breakaway companions in Viareggio. Furthermore, the question of team leadership in the strongest outfit in the race is a first-world problem compared to the headwinds facing many teams at the Giro. But if the road doesn’t decide between Geraint Thomas and Tao Geoghegan Hart, somebody in the Ineos management is going to have to.