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The Vuelta a España started Friday, and like any race, the peloton was full of hope and ambition.
A stage win or podium in a grand tour can change a rider’s career trajectory, while a big harvest of UCI points, especially right now, could secure a team’s WorldTour future.
Yet the harsh reality at the top of the sport in grand tour racing starkly reveals that a few big-money teams are dominating racing in ways unseen in cycling history.
When the podium tally is made during the past five seasons, three well-funded franchises — Ineos Grenadiers, Jumbo-Visma and UAE Team Emirates — are emerging as the absolute rulers of cycling’s three-week grand tours.
Since 2018, only three other teams — Bora Hansgrohe, BikeExchange-Jayco and Movistar — have won a grand tour during the last five-year span.
“These things move in cycles,” said Movistar boss Eusebio Unzué. “A certain rider or a certain team can dominate for a few years, then others move to the top. We’ve lived that before, and that’s what we’re seeing today.”
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Unzué knows full well the swings of fortunes a team can have.
The Spanish manager ran teams in the glory days of Pedro Delgado and Miguel Indurain into the 1990s, and opened the 2010s decade challenging for the Tour and other grand tours with Nairo Quintana.
Now the team, hobbled by injuries, illness, and the absence of a top-flight grand tour contender, is fighting for its WorldTour future.
WorldTour is a peloton of haves and have-nots
Since 2018, the WorldTour is trending toward the haves and the have-nots in grand tour racing unprecedented in cycling history.
The stats speak for themselves.
Going into the Vuelta, the “big three” of Ineos Grenadiers, Jumbo-Visma, and UAE Team Emirates have won every grand tour in the past five years except for three: Simon Yates (BikeExchange-Jayco) at the 2018 Vuelta, Richard Carapaz (then at Movistar) in the 2019 Giro, and Jai Hindley (Bora-Hansgrohe) at the 2022 Giro.
This trio of super-teams has the deepest pockets to sign the best riders, and can afford to hire fleets of coaches and technicians, and the resources to snatch up the top scientists, nutritionists, mechanics, aerodynamic specialists and fund high-altitude training camps that can make the winning difference.
The investment, both financial and human resources, can take years to build. Jumbo-Visma slowly built out its foundation brick-by-brick to enter the elite upper levels of the WorldTour, but it didn’t happen overnight.
Team owner Richard Plugge saved the Dutch team from the ashes of the Rabobank scandal, found committed backers, and invested in developing young, talented riders. They signed a largely unknown Primož Roglič in 2016, and Jonas Vingegaard, who joined the team in 2019, finally delivered the team’s first yellow jersey in a quest that began nearly a decade ago.
“Six years ago, we drew up a plan,” Plugge said after winning the team’s first yellow jersey. “We invested in talent development, equipment, workforce, knowledge and skills. The work of the past years all came to a climax. We could not have imagined that this Tour de France would be such a resounding success for our team.”
└📁Tour de France 2022
└📁 Points classification 💚 pic.twitter.com/oztTdo1u1X
— Team Jumbo-Visma cycling (@JumboVismaRoad) July 7, 2022
Any team’s fortunes are often pinned to one singular, generational rider.
Pull back the lens to include the next five-year period from 2013-17, and the trend largely repeats itself, with a few defunct teams and now-retired riders since being replaced by new rising powers.
Astana had a nice run during that five-year stretch, winning one Tour and two editions of the Giro with Vincenzo Nibali, and one Vuelta a España with Fabio Aru. The latter is already retired and Nibali says goodbye at the end of this season, and the team is facing a bleak future without a confirmed grand tour leader.
In fact, Astana-Qazaqstan won less prize money than any team at the 2022 Tour de France.
Also from 2013-2017, Alberto Contador won one Giro and one Vuelta with the now-defunct Tinkoff during, and Nairo Quintana won two grand tours — a Giro and a Vuelta — in Movistar colors.
Tom Dumoulin with Sunweb won the 2017 Giro, and Chris Horner with RadioShack won the 2013 Vuelta as the only one-off winners during that time frame.
Those teams were capable of pulling off the occasional big hits, but didn’t have the budget or the back-bench to build out a winning program after that key rider or big winner retired, swapped teams, or burned out.
One team stands above. Team Sky, now Ineos Grenadiers, is the proven winner across the full decade.
The UK powerhouse, now owned by Great Britain’s wealthiest citizen Jim Ratcliffe, won four Tours, one Giro, and two Vueltas from 2013 to 2018 with Chris Froome, and later additional yellow jerseys with Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal in 2018 and 2019, respectively.
The team also won the Giro with Froome, Tao Geoghegan Hart and Bernal in 2018, 2020, and 2021, respectively.
The team’s grand tour dominance is underscored at the Tour, the season’s most important and most prestigious race.
From Bradley Wiggins’ historic victory in 2012 through Vingegaard’s latest win, only one team beyond the “big three” of Ineos, UAE, and Jumbo-Visma — Astana with Nibali in 2014 — has won a yellow jersey in the past decade.
Why do a few teams dominate?
Money and strong financing doesn’t always guarantee of grand tour success, but the big-dollar advantage gives the entire organization a head start on the rest of the field.
In modern cycling, teams are spending more on backroom staff, coaching, nutrition, and training than ever before. Two decades ago, 90 percent of a team’s budget was dedicated to riders’ salaries. That percentage has dropped as top teams spend up to a quarter of its budget on staffing and science.
Of course, having dominant teams or franchises at the top of the peloton pecking order is nothing new in cycling.
Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault in the 1980s, Banesto in the 1990s, and even Lance Armstrong and U.S. Postal Service with its now-erased seven yellow jerseys equally dominated the Tour.
What’s different now is that a select few super teams are winning multiple grand tours with different riders. It’s no longer just an obsession with the Tour and the yellow jersey built around one standout rider, such as it was with LeMond to Indurain to Armstrong, but rather a much deeper team and a larger focus on winning at every race.
“We want to be competitive in every grand tour, in every race,” said Ineos principal Dave Brailsford in a recent interview. “People say we only focus on the Tour, but that’s not true. We want to try to win, to have victory as the target, in every race we start.”
It’s no longer a singular rider like Indurain or even the now-disgraced Armstrong who sets the tone and focus for an entire team.
These new super-teams pack multiple grand tour winners under one roof.
In 2022, Ineos Grenadiers boasted four grand tour champions on its roster. Jumbo-Visma brings confirmed grand tour winners with Roglič and Vingegaard. UAE Team Emirates is rising quickly thanks to Pogačar and his generational talent, but the team also is also building other GC prospects, with João Almeida, Juan Ayuso, and Brandon McNulty waiting in the wings.
It’s a combination of money, recruitment, resources, and drive that set the super-teams apart.
Some suggest that budget restraints or spending caps are the answer to create what might seem a more balanced and equitable peloton. Others speak of restructuring the sport with profits being shared around the entire peloton to create more financial incentives and gains for everyone.
While it’s true the richer teams have a financial advantage, and it plays out both on and off the bike, recruitment is where today’s behind-the-scenes financial muscle is being most felt.
In addition to signing the big-name stars, all of the “big three” are investing heavily in developing the GC stars of tomorrow by snatching up the most promising young talent.
UAE snagged 19-year-old Juan Ayuso of Spain, while Jumbo-Visma created a development team in 2020 that’s already paying dividends with the likes of sprinter ace Olav Kooij and Gijs Leemreize.
Ineos Grenadiers began building out its “Generation Next” a few years ago, with riders like Tom Pidcock, Geoghegan Hart and Ethan Hayter already proving to be winners. New recruits Luke Plapp, Magnus Sheffield, Ben Tullett, and Carlos Rodríguez all seem poised for greatness.
For managers like Unzué, who insist that his team isn’t behind the beat on science, nutrition, or equipment, the only hope is that patience and diligence will eventually pay off.
“The riders mark the differences, and to have good riders, you have to have to be able to go to the market with deep pockets,” Unzué told El País last month.
“We will have a more interesting horizon in the next few years when some of those names are available,” he said. “Everything is a cycle. Don’t forget what we just had in Spanish cycling with Contador and Valverde … that’s just the way it is.”
The dominance of the “super team” era was absolute in the 2022 Tour: Jumbo-Visma won the yellow, green and climber’s jerseys, UAE Team Emirates won the white jersey, and finished second with Pogačar, with Ineos Grenadiers hit third overall with Thomas, and won the team classification.
Breaking into the grand tour club
How do rivals compete?
BikeExchange-Jayco, one of the few teams not part of the elite “big three,” consistently wins thanks to focus and diversity. Right now, the team brings only one legitimate GC contender in Simon Yates, the 2018 Vuelta winner, so when Yates isn’t racing, the team sets other targets.
The 2022 Tour was perfect example. With a budget about one-half of that of Ineos Grenadiers, the team knew it didn’t have any real chances for yellow, so it went all-in with a barrage of attacks, breakaways, and sprints, and the payoff was huge.
The team won two stages and finished second in four others, results that all but assured the team’s WorldTour status for the next three seasons.
“The racing at the Tour is changing and there is a new breed of athlete coming in. The Wouts, the Van der Poels, the Pidcocks — these guys are world champions in cyclocross, Olympic champions in mountain biking. They can do it all, and they’re 25,” sport director Matt White said last week.
“There are only two ways to beat those guys. Number one, trying to win races where they’re not racing. Or you change the chip, and change the way you race and be more unpredictable.”
The latest team to break into the “big three” grand tour club is Bora-Hansgrohe.
The German-backed team is another interesting case study. Team owner Ralph Denk started the team in 2010 as a lowly second-tier squad. The arrival of Peter Sagan in 2017 helped elevate the team’s game.
Yet Denk and his staffer harbored larger ambitions, and shed Sagan and his entourage at the end of 2021 and used the extra money spent lavishing on signing new talent, including Hindley, Sergio Higuita, Aleksandr Vlasov to inject high-octane talent into its GC ambitions.
The team’s core was in place, and all Denk lacked were a few clear and dominant leaders.
Despite a very competitive marketplace, he landed the top riders he needed for 2022, and Hindley delivered Australia’s first pink jersey and the team’s first grand tour victory in May at the Giro. Vlasov backed it up with fifth at the Tour despite crashing early, and Sergio Higuita is hoping for big things in this Vuelta.
“I don’t think that everyone in the world of cycling understood what we did and some did not understand why we let Peter Sagan go,” Denk told Bici Pro. “We had a clear plan, a clear strategy. Many people around the team have a great passion and a great motivation for this project, and it is very nice to see how the plan worked after not even half a season.”
The pieces were already in place at Bora-Hansgrohe after it slowly built out its roster, support staff, and technical and science platforms. It just needed the talent to finish it off and put the cherry on top of the grand tour cake.
And like Jumbo-Visma, Bora-Hangrohe’s road to the top was slow and steady.
So what are the takeaways?
It’s more elite at the top of the WorldTour peloton, but more exciting than ever. Three teams dominate the grand tours, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
In 2022, it’s no longer one team or one singular rider dominating the entire tone and pace of the peloton for years on end. Instead of having a race seem like a contest for the podium, today, every grand tour is delivering exciting and unpredictable racing.
These “super-teams” might have an advantage built on finances and strong recruiting, but they are not crushing the action in their quest for dominance.
Instead, a highly competitive, high-stakes battle is unfolding across the season in all the major races in the most competitive and daring racing professional racing has ever witnessed.
Yet during this Vuelta, the favorites largely hail from this new elite.
Carapaz and Geoghegan Hart, both former Giro winners, lead Ineos Grenadiers. Ayuso, Almeida, and McNulty have a chance to show off their promise at UAE, and Roglič is hoping to become the first rider to win four straight red jerseys, with Sepp Kuss waiting in the wings.
Can Ben O’Connor (Ag2r-Citroën) or Hugh Carthy (EF Education-EasyPost) break through? Will Remco Evenepoel (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl) take the next step?
If the Vuelta winner isn’t from among the “big three,” it will be the first time since 2016 that riders from Ineos Grenadiers, UAE Team Emirates and Jumbo-Visma haven’t won at least two of the three grand tours in the same season.
The era of the “super teams” is here.