Tour de France: Ineos Grenadiers’ new plan for success with a next British talent
A sleepy hamlet nestled in a Belgian forest sits in near total silence – apart from the murmurings from its one restaurant.
All the locals are crammed in it seems, chatting about the big race over white wine, moules frites at 36 euros a bowl. Outside, hundreds of bright red firebug beetles jockey for relief from the spring chill in a sliver of sunlight.
That chill means Ineos Grenadiers don’t want their latest prodigy interviewed outside for fear of exposure to the cold. Small wonder, given how much it must have cost them to keep hold of one of cycling’s biggest prospects.
When we met in April, Tom Pidcock had just signed a new five-year contract believed to be worth something in the region of 3-5m euros a year. He and his team were about to race the Tour of Flanders, the one-day classic where Ineos’s Dylan van Baarle would finish second.
Now Pidcock – last year’s Olympic mountain bike champion – and Ineos are looking for a bigger statement at cycling’s greatest race, the Tour de France.
They hope it will mark the beginning of a journey back to the top, driven in no small part by a unique British talent.
But the odds are stacked against them.
A cold Saturday in the middle of the Belgian countryside might seem a far cry from the heat-soaked Alpine summits where the infamous Team Sky train sealed seven Tour titles through Sir Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal.
But the city of Ghent, just eight miles away, is the birthplace of Wiggins, who began that stream of success in 2012.
“They were kind of my first heroes I guess,” says Pidcock. “Sky in 2012 was a big year with Brad winning the Tour, [Mark] Cavendish becoming world champion and Brad winning the Olympic time trial.
“What motivates me is the profile I can create and want to create. What my legacy is, is a big driving point for me.”
Ten years on and the team – racing under their new name since 2019 – no longer have that same footing in the sport but they believe that in Leeds-born Pidcock they have a rider of great potential.
Now 22, he’s in his second season with Ineos, having arrived in 2021 with a strong reputation from the junior ranks forged in a large part from his performances in cyclo-cross races.
On the roads too there had been success, winning the prestigious ‘baby Giro’ in 2020 – a week-long under-23 level stage race which has launched several of the sport’s top talents.
Last year, he used that same race-craft to win the prestigious Belgian one-day classic De Brabantse Pijl, where usually only the toughest riders from the low countries triumph.
Then at the beginning of this year, he went back to his roots and won the world cyclo-cross title and in some style, famously – in cycling circles a least – aping Superman as he crossed the line.
It was that victory – and the versatility behind it – that sparked the contract renewal talks. Several American teams wanted him for his apparent ability to win races on almost every type of bike, a quality that sells. Ineos wanted him to stay.
“Tom is very much central to the plans,” deputy team principal Rod Ellingworth says.
“The character he is… we wanna win races and have a love and affection to what we do, to get the fans right behind us.
“Before, when we were trying to win the Tour we knew we had to be laser-focused – we didn’t always consider people externally. He fits the model of the diversity of the team, as in the off-road area and the road racing and classics.”
A cycling lifer, Ellingworth worked closely with Sir Dave Brailsford as head of performance at Team Sky – he even constructs his sentences the same way, and in the same Derbyshire twang. The pair have clearly spent a lot of their adult lives in planning meetings together.
More recently, the Team Sky management has gone through something of a change since the days of Tour de France glory when, according to some, they lacked style in success.
Distinctive figurehead Brailsford is still around, but now looks after Ineos’ whole sports portfolio. A huge multi-national chemicals company run by billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe, they are branching out across elite sport, with sailing legend Ben Ainslie and F1’s one-time all conquering Mercedes team now also part of the stable.
Day-to-day leadership of the cycling team comes under Ellingworth’s role.
They still have a lot of planning meetings. They are still thinking of ways to get ahead, still looking for the marginal gains so emblematic of the first era of success.
Every hotel room booked for riders is cleaned again by Ineos’ own team, bed sheets are changed again, the carpets re-hoovered, curtains blacked out.
There are six separate performance coaches, several grades of reconnaissance set-ups depending on the importance of the race or specific stage.
So what’s changed? Why are they no longer dominating?
“Competition has really heated up over the last few years – it has reached a whole new level of professionalism,” says Ellingworth.
“We took it to a new level. I think there were some easy pickings when we first came to the sport [in 2010].
“[Rivals] weren’t really looking at the detail and being rider focused. Now, what’s happened over time, all the other teams have learnt – they’ve got their eyes wide open. Naturally things progressed.”
Pidcock agrees that the sport is different now. It is not just that other teams have caught up with Ineos’ ultra-professionalism, the speed and intensity of the peloton has increased.
“I don’t think it’s possible [to win everything] in this current state of cycling,” he says.
“The level the sport is at now, it’s not feasible to do what Sky did – to dominate in the way they did with trains and everything, especially with that style of racing.
“I mean you’d have to ride really fast to keep control of the races now. I think we are adapting the way we race.”
That ‘new way of racing’ was coined by Brailsford after Tao Geoghegan Hart’s unexpected Giro d’Italia win in 2020, and Egan Bernal won the same race convincingly last year.
This year Richard Carapaz’s surprise late capitulation in the Dolomites saw the team lose their grip on the Giro.
However, nothing is a bigger problem to Ineos’ plans than the form of a key rival – 2020 and 2021 Tour de France winner Tadej Pogacar.
Riding for the relatively new UAE Team Emirates squad, the 23-year-old has been unbeatable in every stage race he has contested during 2022, controlling his rivals without showing any pain on the climbs.
In Ineos’ favour is their strength in depth. Alongside Pidcock they have young talent in abundance – American Magnus Sheffield won this year’s De Brabantse Pijl, while Ethan Hayter, 23, is a British talent already winning races. Ben Tulett, aged 20, is another British prospect and Australian Luke Plapp has also shown promise.
They have Grand Tour winners in Bernal, Thomas and Carapaz. Adam Yates is also capable and in his prime at 29.
Thomas, now 36, is even promising something of a renaissance, having won the Tour de Suisse and even showing a little patriarchal chutzpah in the press in establishing the intra-team pecking order.
But it’s widely appreciated that none of them have so far come close to matching Slovenian Pogacar.
On the eve of the Tour de France, Ineos’ task of returning to the main objective of winning cycling’s most high-profile race is far from guaranteed.
For his part, Pidcock thinks he needs more time.
“I think I am capable of winning a Grand Tour, and this year I will have a much better idea about my capabilities,” he says. “But I need to do more stage races as well.
“I’m light enough and I think I can climb pretty well and can do pretty good time trials when I get down to it, so yeah I believe whatever I put my mind to it’s possible.
“You need that kind of confidence if you want to achieve anything.”
Ellingworth adds: “I always use Geraint Thomas as an example – I worked with him since he was a young lad. We would never have said 15 years ago: ‘Is he going to win the Tour de France?’
“Same for Chris Froome – it wasn’t clear. Did they have the desire? Yes. Did they have the commitment? Yes. Did they have numbers and the physical make-up? Yes.
“Who knows if Tom can win the Tour, but I think he is in that space – he’s got all those things.
“But I think Pogacar’s completely out there on his own at the minute. And potentially yes he could dominate for a few years.
“Sometimes I think I take it for granted when we got back-to-back Tour wins. You look now at how Pogacar is performing and you think that we did do something quite special.
“But we’ll have a damn good go at him that’s for sure.”