Last September, for only the second time in the last nine years, Sir Dave Brailsford did not stand in the Place de Concorde celebrating a Tour de France win.
Hopes crumbled when defending champion Egan Bernal shipped time on the Grand Colombier on stage 15, abandoning the race with knee and back injuries two days later.
There was the consolation of a stage win for Michal Kwiatkowski on stage 18, crossing the line alongside team-mate Richard Carapaz, but the race had long since evolved into a two-way battle between Primoz Roglic and eventual winner Tadej Pogacar as the Ineos Grenadiers watched on.
Their determination to put that right over the next month is clear from the squad that will roll out in Brest on Saturday. Three former Grand Tour winners, four plausible team leaders, and strength in depth that nobody – not even Roglic’s Jumbo Visma – can compete with.
The Grenadiers know that Pogacar and Roglic return as the favourites this year. Pogacar has shown his Tour victory at the age of 21 was no fluke, starting this year with overall wins at the UAE Tour, Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour of Slovenia, and the bookmakers are counting on a repeat.
Roglic, meanwhile, bounced back from the disappointment of surrendering yellow in the dramatic penultimate day time trial last year by defending his Vuelta a Espana crown, and will return to France a wiser man for last year’s collapse.
But the Slovenian pair will surely find the Grenadiers harder to shake off this year, swamped by sheer numbers.
A Tour de France 𝐭𝐞𝐚𝐦 like no other, ready to take the initiative.
Expect the unexpected.
— INEOS Grenadiers (@INEOSGrenadiers) June 18, 2021
The Ineos deck is stacked with 2018 winner Geraint Thomas, 2019 Giro d’Italia champion Richard Carapaz, 2020 Giro winner Tao Geoghegan Hart and a revitalised Richie Porte, fresh from victory at the Criterium du Dauphine.
Kwiatkowski, Luke Rowe, Dylan Van Baarle and Jonathan Castroviejo complete an experienced, rounded line-up which will intimidate rivals even before the flag is dropped on Saturday.
Will it mean a return to the old ‘Sky Train’? Of attempting to steamroller rivals into the road as they sit on the front of the peloton setting a pace no one else can keep up with?
Brailsford has insisted such tactics, unpopular with fans, are in the past – no longer in keeping with the team’s philosophy after they used a more attacking, more open and, let us be straight, more exciting approach to win the Giro with Geoghegan Hart and then Egan Bernal in the last 12 months.
But Grenadiers sport director Gabriel Rasch gave some more telling answers in an interview earlier this month as he spoke of “outmaneuvering” and “outnumbering” Roglic and Pogacar.
“You have to choose the right tactic for the right day,” Rasch said. “It could be boring stages for the old Sky tactic where you potentially defend, it can be the other way where we will be more aggressive and attack.”
In Thomas and Carapaz, the Grenadiers have leaders with contrasting styles who can act as a foil for one another if required.
Thomas, now 35 and in a contract year, looks back to the form that saw him win this race in 2018, winning the Tour de Romandie in May with podium finishes at the Volta a Catalunya and Dauphine either side.
Fifty-eight kilometres of time trialling play to the Welshman’s strengths, and he must use the stage five race against the clock to establish himself in the fight for yellow.
Carapaz, in contrast, is an explosive climber who will look to the six summit finishes – and the daunting double ascent of Mont Ventoux on stage 11 – to make up time.
When it comes to leadership the Grenadiers insist they will, as before, let the road decide. If they get it right, rivals will have no choice but to follow their lead.