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  • Finlay McPherson

Are the INEOS Grenadiers Really So Far Off the Pace?

The once imperious team formerly known as Team Sky now find themselves without a Grand Tour win in three years - and surrounded by teams packed full of superstars. Much of the media’s focus on them has painted a grim picture of the British team's chances of ever reaching the pinnacle of cycling again: but is the cycling world being harsh on the INEOS Grenadiers?

The answer is yes. While it is undoubtedly true that the INEOS Grenadiers have been caught up by the trio of Team Jumbo Visma (who were able to secure a Grand Tour sweep this year), Team UAE (who have 2 Tour de France wins in four years) and Quickstep-Alpha Vinyl (a team built entirely around the former world champion and La Vuelta 22’ winner, Remco Evenepoel), this is simply the nature of the sport. There are always going to be oscillations of dominance from one team to another, and INEOS are far better placed to return to the top spot than many give them credit for.

If the cycling media were to be believed, you would be forgiven for thinking that 2023 was an unimaginably awful season for the INEOS Grenadiers but this is simply not the case. In the 2023 edition of the Giro D’Italia, the INEOS General Classification Leader - Geraint Thomas - was a mere forty seconds away from winning the entire race, and had been in the lead for the vast majority of stages. He managed to surpass all expectations and led the Giro until the penultimate time trial stage. A podium place in the race generally considered the hardest Grand Tour on the calendar is certainly nothing to be scoffed at. This is especially true when the rider to take the top spot was Primosz Roglic, a multiple-time Grand Tour winner supported by super domestique and eventual La Vuelta a España 2023 winner, Sepp Kuss. Until the unfortunate crash, and subsequent abandonment, of Tao Geoghegan-Hart, INEOS had managed to have multiple riders in the top fifteen on general classification - this is certainly not a sign of a team low on talent and momentum. The Giro also helped to uncover the huge talents of Thymen Arensmen, who is in his first season with the team. He played a pivotal role in helping Geraint in his journey to the podium, and came to the rescue of the team in many of its hardest and most mountainous stages.

Another young talent was uncovered during the team's battle during Le Tour de France as they fought to deliver 22-year-old Carlos Rodriguez a top-five finish. They were ultimately successful in a goal many never thought they had a chance of achieving, despite a late crash that saw Rodriguez bandaged up for the remainder of the stages. In such a packed peloton, including such phenoms as two-time Tour de France winner and Team UEA frontman, Tadej Pogacar, and Jonas Vinegaard, who was eventually able to add a second TdF win to his palmarès, it was no mean feat to get Carlos to the top end of the general classification. The Grenadiers bolstered their Tour de France GC success with two back-to-back stage victories, displaying moments of individual brilliance that are often forgotten, or intentionally ignored, by those who rubbish any chance of an INEOS resurgence. Michal Kwiatkowski was the first Grenadier to take a stage win in the 2023 edition of Le Tour: he surged to a stunning solo victory on stage thirteen - in which he held off a huge effort from Team UAE to reel him back in. Rocketing up the final climb, he was seen displaying the awesome uphill skill that he’d become known for. In the very next stage, Carlos Rodriguez found himself in a group of Tadej Pogacar, Jonas Vingegaard and Adam Yates, with 7.3km left to go until the finish line. Eventually, Rodriquez launched an attack and left the highly talented group in his wake - yet another success for a team supposedly down and out.

While La Vuelta a España was certainly not INEOS’ best Grand Tour in history, multiple mitigating factors can explain the poor results - results which still included a fantastic time trial win for Filippo Ganna. Firstly, it was the only time Geraint Thomas had ever attempted to go for the Giro and La Vuelta in the same season, with the Welshman reporting that he struggled with morale and having the legs to compete. There were also several crashes, including a couple for Geraint himself, that further bruised the team. One such crash saw talented domestique Laurens de Plus sent home after half a stage, and another led to Thymen Arensmen being hospitalised after a brutal incident on stage seven. He broke his collarbone and suffered significant facial injuries, though is now, thankfully, recovering. There are still positives to be drawn from La Vuelta for INEOS, as it allowed for grand tour newbie Kim Heiduk to gain some valuable experience as he continues to grow as a rider. It was another grand tour under Egan Bernal’s belt, as he continues his recovery programme following his nearly life-ending crash at the beginning of 2022.

Furthermore, they have found their riders having great success in individual pursuits and races. Tom Pidcock became the male Mountain Bike World Champion at this year's UCI World Championships in Scotland, further cementing his status as a multi-discipline talent with a hugely bright future. Josh Tarling, the young Welshman who only recently turned professional, became the men's European Time Trial Champion after seeing off hugely talented time trialists such as Stefan Bissegger and Wout Van Aert. He is another young talent in INEOS’ ranks, which disputes the claims by certain commentators that the Grenadiers have missed the boat on gaining any talented youngsters. Pauline Ferrand-Prévot was also competitive, despite having to bow out of the women’s Gravel World Championships due to COVID-19. In many of the smaller races, INEOS also performed relatively well. For example, Magnus Sheffield won the Young Riders Classification in the Tour of Britain, which is a great result for the American. Especially so, when considering that, months before taking the white jersey, he was hospitalised for three days after a crash in the Tour de Suisse - a crash that claimed the life of 26-year-old Swiss rider, Gino Mäder.

The biggest and most enduring criticism levelled at INEOS has been that they have mishandled the cycling offseason. They have been accused of being asleep at the wheel, with many riders leaving their ranks and not many coming the other way. The Grenadiers have lost the likes of Pavel Sivakov (who is off to Team UAE), Tao Geoghegan-Hart (who has joined Lidl-Trek) and, most recently, Luke Plapp (with the Australian National Champion off to Jayco-Alula). While this is obviously a loss of talent, it is also an opportunity for the team to realign themselves and free up budget space for any future attempts to sign a huge star. It also means that some of the younger riders, such as Ethan Hayter, Michael Leonard and Magnus Sheffield, can have more opportunities going forward. The Grenadiers have been attacked by some, due to an apparent failure to sign a perceived superstar. The strong rumours of INEOS bringing Remco Evenepoel to the team turned out to be false, for now, and they were beaten to the signing of Jumbo Visma by Bora Hansgrohe. Although, there are doubts as to whether INEOS had even tried to get him through the door in the first place. And, while these are disappointing outcomes, it is certainly not the end of the world. Geraint Thomas, Ben Swift, Laurens de Plus and Carlos Rodriguez, among others, have extended their contracts with the team - which ties down an important core of talent for the next few seasons. The INEOS Grenadiers missed out on Remco this year, but there are already rumours circulating that the Belgian is still on his way, just a year later than expected. I certainly would not rule out a future in which we see Remco Evenepoel in an INEOS jersey. They have also managed to secure the signing of sought-after American, AJ August - who will turn professional with the team next year. Talented domestique Oscar Rodriguez will add depth to the team, and address the gaps left by departing domestiques.

While the Grenadiers are not miles ahead of their competition, as they were during the Team Sky days, they still remain a serious force to be reckoned with. They performed well this year, even with damped expectations, and their experienced core of riders are guiding their ranks of seriously talented younger cyclists - which stands them in great stead for seasons to come. The media narrative around the Grenadiers has been one of a fallen giant that will struggle to reach the higher echelons of the sport they once made their own. But the narrative was wrong, and INEOS will prove themselves to be champions - as they always do.


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