Ineos riders’ dominance under threat at Tour de France

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NICE — The dominant force at the Tour de France for most of the last decade, the Ineos team of defending champion Egan Bernal is seeing its supremacy challenged, and this year’s race could well be the one marking a major shift of power in cycling.

Since Bradley Wiggins’ triumph at the marquee event back in 2012, the British outfit has never been under such a threat as it is on the starting line in the Riviera city of Nice, where the three-week race is set to start Saturday under the cloud of COVID-19.

The pandemic has forced the Tour to move to the end of the summer holidays and the few races held prior to the event strongly suggest that Dutch team Jumbo-Visma is ready to replace Ineos as the top Grand Tour squad.

But a changing of the guard this summer is far from guaranteed. The uncertainty brought on by the virus and the steady rise of cases in France in recent weeks mean there is a real risk the race could be stopped short if the situation deteriorates further or if the peloton is badly hit by positive results.

“We don’t know, nobody knows, if we’re going to reach Paris,” Ineos manager Dave Brailsford said on Friday. “To be fair, if it comes to a point where it’s detrimental to the riders and teams, people need to take that on board as well. We need to be responsible and reasonable in our approach.”

Under the COVID-19 exclusion rules issued by cycling’s governing body, teams could be excluded from the race if two of their riders test positive in the space of seven days.

“It’s a first miracle that we are able to start this race, but we want a second miracle to happen, which is the Tour de France to arrive in Paris,” UCI president David Lappartient said. “The goal is really to reach Paris.”

Led by the 2019 Spanish Vuelta winner Primoz Roglic and 2018 Tour de France runner-up Tom Dumoulin, Jumbo-Visma arrived at the Tour with a roster capable of controlling the race in the mountains, an essential element that was a hallmark of the Ineos teams in previous years.

Roglic, a former ski jumper from Slovenia, has all the qualities required to win this mountainous edition of the Tour that will take the peloton over France’s five mountain ranges. A climber with great downhill abilities, he would be the overwhelming favorite if not for his crash at the Criterium du Dauphine while leading the race earlier this month.

Roglic says he has fully recovered and insists Dumoulin is also in great shape.

“The thing is I’m here and I’m at the start. That’s really good news and it’s nice to be here. I’m also ready. We start on Saturday and I’ll just try to do my best and we’ll see how it goes,” he said. “Looking to Tom, I think he’s made big steps and he’s ready to be at his best here. It’s a lot nicer now to have such a strong guy in the team and we’ll try and do the best that we can.”

When organizers unveiled the route for the 2020 edition in October, there was little doubt the 3,484-kilometre (2,165-mile) trek would be an ideal setting for Bernal and his experienced teammates including previous winners Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas.

But the pair of former champions has been axed from the Ineos team following under-par performances at preparation races after the season resumed in early August. There is however a silver lining to Froome and Thomas’ exclusion. They have made way for the addition of Giro champion Richard Carapaz alongside a group of excellent so-called “domestiques.”

And in their absence, the 23-year Bernal won’t have to assert his authority because he will be the team’s sole leader.

“He’s is such a young, exciting, talent,” said Brailsford. “He has won the race already, he’s obviously ambitious but he has got no pressure, it’s a kind of nice position to be in.”

Meanwhile, French hopes of producing a homegrown Tour winner for the first time in 35 years will rest with Thibaut Pinot, who finished runner-up at the Dauphine this month. The Frenchman was forced to withdraw from the Tour last year within touching distance of Paris with a left leg injury after bringing excitement to the race in the Pyrenees, where he managed to drop Bernal on climbs and posted a prestigious stage win at the top of Tourmalet mountain.

This year’s route, with nearly 30 climbs over the Alps, the Pyrenees, the Massif Central, the Jura and the Vosges, and only one uphill time-trial, is perfectly suited to Pinot’s ambition of becoming the first French winner since Bernard Hinault in 1985.

“I’m stronger in my head, I have less pressure,” Pinot said. “Hopefully it cannot be worse than last year. It has hardened me, I feel more confident and stronger this year.”

His sports director at Groupama-FDJ, Philippe Mauduit, agreed.

“He is really back to his best,” Mauduit said.

Whether that’s good enough will be evident in three weeks’ time.

Australia’s Jay Vine wins Tour Down Under

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ADELAIDE, Australia — Australia’s Jay Vine defended his overnight lead to win the Tour Down Under, the first event of the 2023 World Tour.

Simon Yates of Britain won the final stage and moved up from third to second place on overall standings. Vine came in second on the stage to secure the biggest win of his career in a stage race.

The UAE Team Emirates rider took the overall tour lead when he finished second in Stage 2 and third in Stage 3. He came into the final stage with a 15-second lead on general classification.

The 70-mile stage involved four laps of a 15.5 mile-circuit through the Adelaide Hills before finishing just beyond the summit of Mount Lofty.

Yates led the crucial attack on the ascent less than 1.2 miles from the finish, but Vine jumped onto his wheel and Australian Ben O’Connor also joined in.

O’Connor led out close to the finish line, Vine briefly passed him but Yates came over the top to claim the stage win. Vine retained his overall advantage and claimed the title in his debut appearance in the Tour Down Under.

The 27-year-old made his name in e-Sports before being signed by the UAE team after winning the academy program on the Zwift online platform. He won two stages of the Vuelta a Espana last year and the Australian Time Trial title.

“It’s pretty incredible to be standing here and wearing this jersey,” Vine said. “The way we drove that was first class. My guys were incredible.”

The final stage featured a breakaway of 13 riders but Vine’s UAE teammates led the chase by the peloton and put their rider in a position to contest the win.

Yates again rode an aggressive race but had to be happy with the stage win.

“We came Down Under with a lot of ambition. We put a lot into it and we didn’t come away with the overall but we can walk away pretty happy,” Yates said. “Obviously Jay Vine is a massive talent and the crowd will be happy with a local winner.”

France’s Coquard wins Tour Down Under Stage 4; Vine leads

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ADELAIDE, Australia — French cyclist Bryan Coquard won Stage 4 of the Tour Down Under for his first-ever World Tour win, while Australia’s Jay Vine retained the overall tour lead by 15 seconds with one stage remaining.

Coquard is a lightweight sprinter who has had 49 wins in a decade-long career but had never won on the World Tour until he cleared out near the finish to claim the 82-mile stage by a margin of about just over 100 feet.

Vine was among the leading group that shared Coquard’s winning time and who retained his lead on general classification over Britain’s Simon Yates and Germany’s Phil Bauhaus. The race concludes with Stage 5, which ends atop 2,329-foot Mount Lofty.

“It’s a long time that I’ve waited for this win, 10 years,” said Coquard, who rides for the French Cofidis team. “I never really expected and I’m very happy and relieved with this win.”

While the stage was flat and suited sprinters, it had its challenges. Cross-winds and occasional gradients made the stage difficult and confounded some riders.

After an early breakaway by Jonas Rutsch and former tour winner Daryl Impey of South Africa, the peloton broke into two groups with Vine and other tour leaders among the leading group.

The leading group stayed together around the last, sharp bend towards the finish and Coquard bided his time until his late sprint left other riders flat-footed.

“It was pretty stressful,” Vine said. “There was one point there, I thought we were going to have an easy day and I was happy, smiling, waving to families on the side of the road.

“Then, 45 kilometers in it was on and it was on until the end so it was a very hard day. There was a lot more calorie expenditure than I was planning.”