As Sherlock Holmes said, when you have eliminated the impossible what remains is the truth. The Mystery of the Missing Ineos Two was the main talking point last week at the Critérium du Dauphiné, a traditional Tour de France warm-up race, this year run off in truncated form, with an intense amount of climbing crammed into five days. Simply put, if you are going to win the Tour de France, you show your form here.
Approaching day two’s finish at the Col de Porte, the maroon-clad Ineos riders gathered at the front of the bunch on the final climb looking set to rip the lead group to pieces in traditional style. Instead, Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas disappeared from view before the merest shred had been torn.
Five Tour wins between them, two weeks out from the race they had announced as an objective for the year and neither looked remotely concerned. After which both went conspicuously missing every time the racing got tough, looking, if anything, less perturbed by the day.
In cycling terms this was like the Marie Celeste disappearing into the Bermuda triangle: Froome’s form was always going to be uncertain given he is recovering from an accident last June that would have ended most riders’ careers. But Thomas had been adamant his target was the Tour, even if he would have to support the 2019 winner Egan Bernal.
The most generous interpretation was that Ineos were bluffing, the more so as, with Bernal abandoning to nurse a back problem, none of the team looked scintillating apart from young Pavel Sivakov. So why not think about the seemingly impossible: neither Froome nor Thomas was looking good enough for the Tour.
With the incisiveness of Holmes explaining to Watson precisely whodunnit, on Wednesday morning Sir Dave Brailsford revealed that neither Thomas nor Froome would be in Ineos’s Tour lineup. Thomas will lead the team at the Giro d’Italia, Froome at the Vuelta a España, with last year’s Giro winner Richard Carapaz, who won a stage of the Tour of Poland a couple weeks ago, drafted in for the Tour.
The Vuelta makes sense for Froome, who needs as long as possible to regain form after his injury; the Giro is a meagre consolation prize for Thomas, who has not missed the Tour since 2012 and has provided devoted service to first Froome then Bernal.
With only the Welshman Luke Rowe, this is hardly a team to warm UK fans’ hearts, a far cry from the days when Brailsford waxed lyrical about developing British talent. There are skilled young Britons at Ineos but if they want to experience the Tour, they must wait, as Tao Geoghegan Hart has found out.
Only Brailsford and his boffin Tim Kerrison know the extent this was planned in advance. It smacks of last-minute improvisation, although at the Dauphiné neither Thomas nor Froome looked like they were riding the Tour de France or fighting for their places.
If it was planned that neither would be racing the Tour, why make them go through the motions at the Dauphiné along with the core of the Tour squad, Bernal, Sivakov, Michal Kwiatkowski and Jonathan Castroviejo? Why draft Carapaz in at the last minute after keeping him on a largely separate programme?
I would speculate Thomas and Froome were told before the Dauphiné they were uncertain for the Tour and they were started to meet a prior commitment to the organisers; they are the same people who run the Tour, which will lose some of its lustre without the 2018 winner, and the four-times winner. Having the pair at the Dauphiné would make up for that to some extent.
More broadly, in this completely unique year, improvisation is the only modus operandi. Assuming all the races go ahead, this is seven months of major races crammed into four, stage after stage coming with breathtaking speed.
From results to date, some riders and teams have adapted better to a period of shutdown than others and while lockdowns in their respective nations will have had some impact, that is far from the only factor.
Everywhere, team managers are having to think on their feet. If Thomas came out of lockdown without his best form and Carapaz was fit, why stick religiously to the plan, when it is not even certain if the Tour will be completed, let alone if the Giro will actually happen?
This Ineos Tour team mark a generational change but Brailsford will not be losing sleep over that. Whether to field Froome was an obvious conundrum from the minute he began to say in public he might be going elsewhere; at 34, with a host of younger riders coming along, Thomas was a problem for the future. As in the past, mission clarity has been attained; as in the past, compassionate ruthlessness has been exercised. Elementary, my dear Watson.