As stage 15 of the much-anticipated Tour de France 2020 comes to a close, Mitchell Marshall reflects on the competition thus far and predicts disappointment for Team Ineos after their failure to overcome the challenge of Team Jumbo-Visma.
Commentators have likened the Jumbo-Visma pack – which has dominated the peloton so often this year at the Tour de France – to “hornets”. And upon the ascent of the Grand Colombier in Stage 15, the yellow-and-black uniformed riders stung, fatally so. The grimace upon the face of last year’s champion and Team Ineos rider Egan Bernal as he ceded a further eight minutes in the General Classification race to Primoz Roglic of Jumbo-Visma was deeply affecting. It may well go on to become a defining image of this peculiar, COVID-affected Tour. Even if the race survives the COVID testing that will take place on the second rest day, with Ineos having already suffered a positive test once before in the Tour, the Colombier will surely go down as a vital day in its recent history.
In The Guardian, William Fotheringham argues that the Tour has failed to materialise into the epic clash between Jumbo-Visma and Ineos teams that many predicted before the riders rolled out from Nice in late August. If this is the case, then it is only that Ineos have failed to provide a credible challenge to Jumbo-Visma’s General Classification favourite Primoz Roglic. Instead, Roglic’s compatriot Tadej Pogocar has been his main rival, producing some stunning rides; after all it was Pogocar who summited the Grand Colombier first, even without the help of the world class domestiques Roglic has had to call upon.
To see Roglic led out by former Grand Tour winner Tom Dumoulin, yet as often as not be pegged back by the lone figure of Pogocar, has been awe-inspiring. Though some of Roglic’s teammates have not gone the distance alongside him in all stages, with the likes of Sepp Kuss and Wout Van Aert regularly dropping through the lead group like stones after their day’s work has been completed, this seems a poor reason to suggest that Jumbo-Visma are not a super-team in the mould of Team Sky – Ineos’ indefatigable forebears. Roglic seems almost certain to win the 2020 Tour de France, unless thwarted by the generational talent of his fellow Slovenian Pogocar. The pace that his team have set at the front of races in the process has been nothing short of phenomenal.
In this respect, Bernal’s failure to reproduce his form from last year’s Tour is no embarrassment. Indeed, the Colombian rider remains young enough to compete for the best young rider’s jersey, which he has worn for part of the race, before being superseded by Pogocar. Therein lies the problem, not just for Bernal and Ineos, but for any potential competitor to Pogocar or Roglic. While the likes of plucky Brit Adam Yates have stolen the maillot jaune for a day or two here and there, all the contenders face a Slovenian duo backed up by immense precocious talent and a great team respectively.
Nonetheless, for Bernal to be out of contention entirely by the time the race enters a particularly mountainous third week will bring the bright lights of media scrutiny down upon Ineos, and their tactical mastermind, Sir David Brailsford. Riders such as Yates – whom Ineos are recruiting for next season – have so far made a much greater impression than Bernal, despite lacking the dedicated team of top-drawer riders around them that Bernal has had. For although Jumbo-Visma contains erstwhile Grand Tour winners, so does Ineos. Richard Carapaz is a Giro d’Italia winner in his own right with Movistar but has done his best for Bernal this time around; Michal Kwiatkowski has produced perhaps Ineos’ best individual performance, providing respite for his Colombian teammate. Bernal’s implosion on the slopes of the Grand Colombier begs the question: could Ineos not have found a better rider to lead their team this year?
Perhaps the greatest mark against Ineos, then, is not who is riding for them in the Tour de France, but which of their seemingly bottomless roster they chose to leave out. Four-time Tour winner Chris Froome was deemed not to have sufficiently recovered from a career-threatening injury suffered while simultaneously attempting to ride a bend and blow his nose on race reconnaissance duties last summer. His impending departure from the team at the end of this season also raised questions about his dedication to the cause. Similarly, 2018 Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas was omitted from the squad due to his unwillingness to play the role of domestique after being a winner in his own right.
The latter decision appears, with hindsight, to have been a poor one. While Bernal has floundered, Thomas is on the podium at another stage race, the Tirreno-Adriatico, as it heads into its final stage. One wonders whether Ineos and Thomas could not have come to some sort of agreement. It has not been unusual for Sky/Ineos to employ dual team leaders, allowing the fittest to naturally come to the fore and garner the support of the rest of the team in the course of the race. This could have worked perfectly, with Thomas riding into form as Bernal rode distinctly out of it. Despite the tensions this may have caused, with Bernal on the record saying he would not sacrifice himself for another team leader, the stark contrast between this duo of Tour winners might have forced Bernal to toil for Thomas had the latter started the Tour.
As it is, Ineos will most likely have had a wasted Tour. They are out of General Classification contention, and are not set up for stage victories, unlike teams Sunweb and Deceunick-Quick Step, both of whom have impressed this year. Meanwhile, Jumbo-Visma will probably find themselves both on the General Classification podium – most probably in first place – as well as winning individual stages. This monochrome portrayal of the Tour fails to do justice to such an epic three-week race, comparable in popularity and narrative to a World Cup or Olympic Games. Other sea-changes have taken place this year, notably the rise of Sam Bennett of Deceunick-Quick Step as a real contender in the Points Classification which has been so dominated in recent years by Peter Sagan and his Bora-Hansgrohe team.
Nevertheless, Jumbo-Visma have brought about an enormous shift that will have significant consequences for the future of World Tour cycling. Ineos are no longer its undisputed kings.
The Tour de France 2020 continues with stage 16 on the 15th September, culminating in the 21st stage on Sunday 20th September as the cyclists ride into Paris.