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Breaking Down Ineos’ Complex Strategy in Provence & QuickStep’s Struggles in Oman

Ineos can't stop winning at Tour de la Provence but keep slipping down the overall standings and Mark Cavendish looks great while his QuickStep team struggles at Oman

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There is a lot happening with two exciting stage races, the Tour of Oman and Tour de la Provence, currently going on, but I wanted to take a moment to focus on two things that have stood out to be at each race: Ineos’ slightly confusing tactics at Provence and the curious case of Cavendish being on great form, but having almost no late-race team support, at the Tour of Oman.

Tour de la Provence: Ineos Keeps Winning Stages, But Have They Made a Massive Tactical Error?

LES SAINTES-MARIES-DE-LA-MER, FRANCE – FEBRUARY 11: (L-R) Elia Viviani of Italy, Filippo Ganna of Italy Black Leader Jersey, Richard Carapaz of Ecuado and Luke Rowe of United Kingdom and Team INEOS Grenadiers compete during the 6th Tour De La Provence 2022 – Stage 1 a 159,3km stage from Istres to Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer / #TDLP22 / on February 11, 2022 in Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, France. (Photo by Luc Claessen/Getty Images)

Prologue:
On the opening stage of the Tour de la Provence, Filippo Ganna won the stage with an average speed of 52.8km per hour (33mph). This absurdly fast TT shows that not much has changed since last season when the big Italian won the World TT Championship.

GC favorites deficit to Filippo Ganna in the prologue:
+0:12 Ethan Hayter
+0:15 Pierre Latour
+0:15 Samuele Battistella
+0:17 Julian Alaphilippe
+0:20 Ilan Van Wilder
+0:31 Nairo Quintana
+0:35 Michael Storer
+0:38 Richard Carapaz
+1:04 Ivan Sosa

But what stood out to me the most was Ethan Hayter’s performance. The 23-year-old became the British Time Trial Champion at the end of 2021 but you could argue this isn’t even his best discipline. His runner-up overall performance at last year’s Tour of Britain made it clear the guy can seemingly do everything; climb, sprint, and TT.

His racecraft and ability to contest a wide variety of stages, along with the way he produced power from his textbook TT position during the prologue, made it easy to imagine him as the team’s next great GC leader.

With this mix of talent, it was difficult to imagine him not winning the race overall at this point.

Stage 1 (Really Stage 2)
The second day of racing saw Ineos win yet another stage by splitting the peloton into bits in the crosswinds and handing Elia Viviani an easy sprint victory. However, their efforts put their own GC contender, Ethan Hayter, out of contention, and even dropped their other leader, Richard Carapaz, on the run-in to the finish, costing him valuable time in the overall standings. After the stage, I was left both impressed by their raw strength, but confused by their strategy and unsure what their goals for the race might be.

80.1km: As the cross-winds force the peloton into echelons and Arnaud Démare and his entire FDJ team is caught out, Ineos and QuickStep waste no time in getting to the front of the race and driving the pace to put anyone not included in the elite group out of contention for both the stage and overall victory. Unfortunately, their teammate Ethan Hayter, who is currently sitting second-place overall, is caught behind.

1.9km: Maciej Bodnar, an extremely strong rider on TotalEnergies, escapes off the front in an attempt to steal a win over Viviani. Ganna is so strong that when he attempts to pull Bodnar back, he drops the entire chasing peloton on accident. This produces the incredibly bizarre sight of Ganna sitting up and freewheeling just as he is about to bridge a nearly unbridgeable gap.

1.2km: When Mads Würtz Schmidt from Israel-Premier Tech attempts to solo off the front just a few moments later, Ganna easily closes him down, but once again drops the peloton, which includes his teammate Viviani, while Richard Carapaz, the team’s man for the GC, is shot out the back. Since I have to imagine that outside of a stage win for Viviani, the team rode all day to set Carapaz up for the overall win, this is a minor disaster.

Finish: Elia Viviani goes on to easily win the stage over Sep Vanmarcke and Julian Alaphilippe, but race leader Ganna sits up and loses time while Carapaz rolls in 16-seconds back.

GC Top Ten After Two Days of Racing (Prologue + Stage 1)

Current Filtered GC Two Days of Racing (Prologue + Stage 1)
0:00 Filippo Ganna
+0:04 Julian Alaphilippe
+0:10 Pierre LaTour
+0:12 Samuele Battistella
+0:17 Illan Van Wilder
+0:28 Nairo Quintana
+0:51 Richard Carapaz
+11:34 Ethan Hayter
+11:57 Michael Storer
+12:26 Ivan Sosa

GC favorites time gap changes relative to the prologue
+
13 Julian Alaphilippe
+0:05 Pierre Latour
+0:03 Ilan Van Wilder
+
0:03 Nairo Quintana
-0:13 Filippo Ganna
-0:13 Richard Carapaz
-11:19 Ethan Hayter

-11:22 Michael Storer
-11:22 Ivan Sosa

Major Questions After Two Stages

What exactly did Ineos accomplish by splitting the race and then driving the pace?

  • Ineos came into the stage with two riders in the top two overall positions and had Richard Carapaz as an insurance policy a little over a half-second back. But, after the dust settled in stage 1, all three of their GC contenders had lost time, with Hayter, and most likely Carapaz, out of running for overall victory.
  • Sure, they won the stage with Viviani, but judging by his speed in the finale, Arnaud Démare is the only rider here who could have beaten him and Ineos certainly could have worked Démare’s Groupama-FDJ team over in the run-in to the finish and stopped Demare from even contesting at the finish line.
  • Frankly, it was difficult to imagine how Hayter, and even Ganna, would have lost the overall if they would have ridden to simply protect their GC interests. Both are very good climbers on non-steep climbs, and with the final summit finish serving up a relatively mild grade, I believe both will fare just fine against the superior ‘climbers.’
    • It is important to remember that climbing, especially on single climbs with steady grades, is simply a steady-state watt per kilo time trial, and nobody in this race is better at that than Ganna and Hayter.
  • And with Alaphilippe sitting only four seconds behind Ganna with two stages of time bonuses remaining, it is difficult to imagine the big Italian holding off the World Champion.
  • The only way to read their strategy from today’s page is that the team has no interest in the GC and is only here for stage wins (and perhaps to show Viviani over-the-top dedication before placing him in the backseat for the rest of the season).

Is Nairo Quintana Back?

  • Nairo Quintana once again proves that he is a maestro in the early-season Provencal crosswinds. And combined with his decent TT yesterday, he has now put in two great rides in the stages that least suit his ability and he enters the two final stages only 28-seconds back. With a 7km-long summit finish on the final stage, I would consider him the favorite to win the race overall at this point.
  • HOWEVER, this doesn’t mean we should start penciling him in for a contender spot at the Tour de France. Coming out storming in February, only to fade later in the year is a trend for Quintana in recent years.

Tour of Oman: QuickStep’s Leadout Is Terrible, But Cavendish Looks Great

Mark Cavendish might only have one stage win after two days of racing in Oman, but the sprinter has looked incredible while his shorthanded QuickStep team has been far from their best at the end of stages. This is a sign that their off-season strategy of shedding experienced talent and bringing in young talent could already be causing problems.

Stage 1
The Belgian team, which put on a sprint leadout clinic at last year’s Tour de France, bet on youth this off-season. The opening stage of the Tour of Oman, where Mark Cavendish was soundly beaten by Fernando Gaviria, shows us exactly why that was a risky strategy.

As the peloton approaches the finish and reels in the last remaining breakaway rider, we can see problems already emerging with QuickStep. Team DSM is attempting to launch Søren Kragh Andersen off the front with a two-man team time trial tactic.

While the move isn’t ultimately successful, due to how the front of the race briefly breaks up as the team attempts their uncoordinated chase, we can see how much stress QuickStep is under attempting to bring it to heel.

300m: On the slight uphill run into the finish line, Gaviria, in second position, still has a teammate, Max Richeze, to burn, while Cavendish has already run out of teammates in 5th position. This puts him at a massive disadvantage relative to Gaviria.

200m-Finish Line: We can see this disadvantage in action when Gaviria’s leadout man moves slightly to the left to allow Gaviria to slip through next to the barriers. Meanwhile, Cavendish has to step out to the left and take a longer route around Richeze. In addition to being longer, the crisp right-to-left crosswind means Cavendish’s route is significantly slower than Gaviria’s straight shot. Because of this, Gaviria easily takes the stage win while Cavendish ends up in second place.

Despite being the faster rider in the final 100 meters, Cavendish loses the stage because of his team’s lack of experience and strength in the leadout.

Stage 2
In the final few hundred meters of today’s second stage, Cavendish has once again been left alone by his QuickStep team and is fighting for position nearly 20-riders back, while stage 1 winner Fernando Gaviria has a textbook great leadout from his UAE team upfront. Coming up from this far back in a high-speed WorldTour spring is next to impossible.

Just a few meters later when the sprint really opens up, Cavendish winds up and launches from so far back that he’s out of the frame. However, despite being in the wind and needing to cover significantly more ground than his competitors, he is moving so much faster that he somewhat easily blows by every single one of them and goes on to win the stage.

Takeaways:

  • Cavendish’s performances on both stages were physically impressive, which shows us that even at 36 years old, he is sprinting at an incredibly high level.
  • He hadn’t beaten Gaviria to win a sprint since 2015, so this is certainly a result of note. If he can keep up performances like this, he will continue to put pressure on his QuickStep team to take him to the Tour de France over Fabio Jakobsen. Since he only needs a single additional stage win to become the all-time record holder at the race, this must be a massive priority.
  • While this is an exciting prospect, it is important to keep in mind that to win at, or even make, the Tour de France, Cavendish will have to beat much better sprinters than the field provided by the Tour of Oman. Gaviria might have been a top sprinter at one point, but he has been trending down in recent seasons and is a shadow of the rider that won two Tour stages in 2018.