Sir Dave Brailsford is looking to put the pressure on his rivals at the Tour de France as his new-look Ineos Grenadiers go all-in behind defending champion Egan Bernal.
The decision to leave out former winners Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas raised eyebrows when the Ineos squad was named last week, with 2019 Giro d’Italia champion Richard Carapaz and rising star Pavel Sivakov among those deputised to support Bernal.
Brailsford, whose team has a new name and kit for the race which begins in Nice on Saturday, believes this much younger unit will be best suited to a parcours designed to encourage attacking racing.
“There’s very little pressure,” Brailsford told the PA news agency. “(Bernal)’s young, he’s won the Tour already, he’s got 10 Tours ahead of him in all likelihood, a big future. He can relax, go out and express himself and really have fun.
“It’s the guys like (Primoz) Roglic, (Tom) Dumoulin, (Thibaut) Pinot, they’re at the other end of the spectrum. They haven’t won the Tour. They’re 30-plus years old. They haven’t got 10 years ahead of them so they have to deliver now.
“We can capitalise on that and go out with a very ambitious but relaxed approach.”
The absence of Froome had perhaps been sign-posted as the four-time Tour winner, due to leave the team for Israel Start-Up Nation in the winter, looked off the pace earlier this summer as he continues his long journey back from career-threatening injuries suffered in a crash last year.
The decision to leave out Thomas was more of a surprise, even if he too struggled to impose himself at the Dauphine.
“The Tour de France is obviously a very big race but equally all the Grand Tours are very big,” Brailsford said.
“With Chris, what a journey he has been on to come back to the level he’s at, people underestimate that, but he’s still on that trajectory.
“He could have come to the Tour in a supporting role, or he can continue to train a little bit more and aim for the Vuelta (in November) and that felt like a more natural fit for a big champion.
“Equally we could have put Geraint in but we felt like with another six weeks he could go to the Giro d’Italia (in October) and compete for a pink jersey to go with his yellow one. I’ve seen them both today, they’re both excited, and it’s all systems go for us.”
Age was an obvious talking point when looking at the Ineos squad. Froome and Thomas are 35 and 34 respectively, while Bernal and Sivakov are both 23 and Carapaz 27.
Carapaz’s inclusion means Ineos once again boast multiple Grand Tour winners within their squad, but Brailsford said Bernal will be the clear team leader after two Tours in which he was content to let the road decide.
“Egan earned the right last year and he deserves to be the leader,” Brailsford said. “For Pavel this is his first Tour and I want him to enjoy it, and I think he will come back one day and think about being competitive himself.
“Richard is the first Ecuadorian to ride the Tour, which is a feat in itself. He’s really tough but really bubbly. There’s a really good dynamic, and it doesn’t feel like there’s any pressure.”
With Luke Rowe the only Brit in the squad there is a switch of accent this year, but the more significant change will be behind the scenes.
Nico Portal, the sports director who oversaw six of the team’s Tour victories, died suddenly at the age of 40 in March, and the team is still adjusting to racing without his considerable influence.
“There’s no denying he’s left a massive hole,” Brailsford said. “I miss him. I really, really miss him as a person. Then obviously there’s the professional context and what he brought to the team, and we miss that.
“There’s no denying it. There’s no getting away from it. Nobody can step into his shoes so we have to approach it differently.”