The rearranged 2020 Tour de France was billed as the battle of the super-teams, Manchester City versus Barcelona on two wheels. In the burgundy corner, Team Ineos, the squad of galácticos that have dominated the Tour since 2012, winning seven times with four different riders. In the yellow and black corner, the Dutch upstarts Jumbo-Visma, who have built a team gradually around the Slovenian Primoz Roglic, and put it in a new dimension last year by adding the 2017 Giro d’Italia winner, Tom Dumoulin.
Two weeks in, that battle has yet to materialise and it may not happen even though the final week’s racing is the perfect setting. There is only one flat stage, on Friday, plus Monday’s rest day, before the climactic time trial next Saturday in eastern France. The rest is all mountains, with the toughest finishes Sunday’s ascent of the Grand Colombier and Wednesday’s 21km climb to Méribel-Col de la Loze.
Thus far, however, neither Jumbo-Visma nor Ineos have looked dominant in the way that Team Sky used to or Ineos did last year. Jumbo hold the yellow jersey with Roglic, but the former ski jumper has not looked as imperial as Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas, Egan Bernal and Bradley Wiggins once did. He holds a slender 44sec lead over his fellow Slovenian Tadej Pogacar – the strongest climber among the overall favourites – with Bernal within reach at 59sec. Six more were close behind. It could all melt away like summer snow on a single Alpine climb.
The big two have shown their cards time after time, only to be eclipsed by events. At the key point in last Friday’s wind-lashed stage into Lavaur, it was Ineos who piled on the pressure to gain minutes on the danger men Mikel Landa and Pogacar, but they were forced to rein back when Bernal’s co-leader, Richard Carapaz, had a puncture.
As early as Nice on day two, Jumbo tried to make the pace, but a freak crash for Dumoulin made them switch abruptly to defence mode. Similarly, last Sunday in the Pyrenees, the Dutch team forced the first major sort-out of the race on the climb of the Col de Marie-Blanque with a show of strength, but Dumoulin fell back at the key moment, unable to follow the pace set by Roglic, Landa, Pogacar and Bernal. Yet Bernal was on his own in the lead quartet: it is rare for any Team Sky/Ineos leader to have to function solo without team support.
The same pattern continued on Friday en route to the steep finish at Le Puy Mary. Jumbo were unable to control the frenetic attacking at the start of the stage, struggling to maintain order for the first 40km. In the finale, Ineos rode briefly in their old dynamic style, to rip the peloton to shreds to set up an attack from Carapaz, but his move was ineffectual. Bernal struggled in the final 2km, losing time to Pogacar and Roglic – or Pog and Rog, as they are affectionately known.
Compared with the machine-like way that Team Sky and Ineos have tackled mountain stages in the past, it was chalk and cheese. In Friday’s finale, a baker’s dozen of riders made the key split of the leaders at the end. From Ineos that included two riders; in the past, it would have been four at least in a mountain selection of this quality.
Both teams are missing key movers. The injured Steven Kruijswijk for Jumbo is one, but the crucial absentee for Ineos looks to be Geraint Thomas, who was unwilling to cede leadership to Bernal and opted to race the Giro d’Italia. As Ineos struggled at the Puy Mary, Thomas was flying in the Tirreno-Adriatico race in Italy. If Bernal cracks in the coming days, the Welshman may come to regret his decision.
Ineos are lacking another presence, their late directeur sportif Nicolas Portal, who died in the spring. His tactical nous on the road and diplomatic qualities behind the scenes are clearly missed.
Individually, key workers in both teams have shone, particularly Jumbo’s Wout van Aert, winner of two stages to date, and the super-strong Luke Rowe and Michal Kwiatkowski at Ineos. But there have also been injuries to key mountain men. At Ineos, Pavel Sivakov and Andrey Amador have been struggling after crashes on day one; at Jumbo, George Bennett is nursing a cracked rib.
There are other explanations. The route offers no chance for a team to establish itself as the dominant force because there is no structure or phasing to the terrain. More significant, perhaps, is the rearranged date, with the Tour the first big stage race of the rejigged season. Moving the Tour to September, with only two short stage races before it, has enabled a far larger group of favourites than usual to hit form at the right time, without the fall-off that occurs in a season because of illness and injury. Ineos have become experts at preparing the Tour in a certain way: it may be that the rejigged season disrupted their routine, levelling the playing field just enough.
There is another thought. Maybe this is what the meeting of the galáctico super-teams was always going to look like: the two strongest squads in the race cancelling each other out and making space for Pogacar, Landa and Nairo Quintana, or maybe even the Australian Richie Porte. Meanwhile, it’s on with the Pog and Rog show.