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Sir Dave Brailsford has defended Ineos' tactics and team selection for the Tour de France, after Sir Bradley Wiggins claimed he would have been fired had he been a football manager.
Brailsford, who insisted that the team did “not gamble” in declining to pick Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome, admitted he was under pressure but said that Ineos owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe “understands” that you cannot win the Tour every year.
"I don't know what's happened,” Wiggins, who won the first of the team's seven Tour titles in 2012, told Eurosport on Monday. “For a team that's performance-orientated and such planning that goes into their seasons, it's just not worked for them for one reason or another. Had it been football, Dave would be out. That's how football works."
Cycling is not football, though. If it was, Brailsford would have faced the music straight after Sunday’s stage when Egan cracked on the Grand Colombier to end the team’s chances of winning an eighth yellow jersey in nine years. Instead, he spent Sunday and Monday lying low, going for a long ride himself, before agreeing to speak to media prior to stage 16 from La Tour-du-Pin to Villard-de-Lans.
Various theories have been put forward for Ineos’s struggles at this Tour, and Brailsford addressed them one by one. On the selection controversy, specifically the decision to leave out former winners Froome and Thomas, and instead bring in Ecuadorean Richard Carapaz, he was unequivocal.
“I don’t gamble,” Brailsford said. “People are entitled to their opinions, but I didn’t gamble with selection. They were big decisions. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. I’m sure that people have a lot to say but they’re not privy to the facts that I’ve got."
Thomas, who is now targeting the Giro d’Italia which begins on Oct 3, finished second at Tirreno-Adriatico leading some to suggest the team made a mistake not picking him.
“I’d never judge myself on somebody else’s narrative to be honest. I think we will look back at what information we had at the time. Did we get it right? Did we get it wrong? Can we learn? But I’m actually very pleased to see Geraint doing so well at Tirreno-Adriatico and looking so good going into the Giro.
“It was a good decision [on Geraint], regardless of what anybody else may think. And Chris is where Chris is at. He’s just not ready yet for this level of competition and I think he knows that himself.”
Brailsford said he would “not underestimate” the extent to which the death of much-loved sports director Nico Portal earlier this year affected the team, both on and off the bike. “He grew up with the team and he played a key role,” he said. “If you lose that you have to adjust to it and that’s going to take time.”
However, he did not directly address speculation that Ineos' DS leadership structure at this race - which has been spread across a core group of sport directors rather than given to one person - has looked muddled.
“I wouldn’t under-estimate that losing Nico has had a big impact,” he said. “However, after 10 years, let’s have a look from top to bottom starting with myself. Look at how we can be better. Now we can stop and say, what’s it going to take?”
Bernal was seen dropping back to the team car on Tuesday collecting bidons and gels for his team mates. And Brailsford said the young Colombian, still just 23, would bounce back.
Bernal said on Monday that he would look to drop time and get in a break later this week if his back was not too sore. A back injury forced the Colombian out of last month’s Criterium du Dauphine.
“Clearly there was something wrong because that wasn’t his normal performance on Sunday,” Brailsford commented. “He wouldn’t normally be out of that lead group — he might be 30 seconds better, 30 seconds worse — but he’d be in the mix. But he’s proud, it’s not in his nature to quit.
“He can 100 per cent come back from this and I’ve seen it a lot with big Olympic champions when they first win at the Olympics and in sport sometimes you need to lose and then you can go again.”
Brailsford said the team needed to go back to the drawing board and build again, with stability the key.
“Totally - and that’s quite exciting in some respects,” he said. “We’ve got to put together a team and a coaching staff that can deliver and try and win the race again. Certainly stability helps. We’ve changed structure, changed owners, and you need to know you’ve got that stability to build again.”
Asked whether he had spoken to Ratcliffe since Sunday, Brailsford replied: “He knows it’s part of sport. Look, he won it last year at the first time of asking, so I think he understands.”
Wednesday's stage from Grenoble to Meribel, which passes over the Col de la Madeleine and finishes with a new climb for the Tour, the Col de la Loze, has been eagerly anticipated ever since the route was announced last autumn.
The final ascent - featuring ramps of 24 per cent and with a summit altitude of 2304m - is a ski run that has been paved over especially for this race. Anyone caught having an off day will likely tumble out of yellow jersey contention.
But similarly, there is the opportunity for those brave enough and within touching distance of yellow, the likes of Adam Yates [Mitchelton-Scott], Rigoberto Uran [EF Pro Cycling], Richie Porte [Trek-Segafredo], Miguel Angel Lopez [Astana] and Mikel Landa [Bahrain-McLaren] - all within two minutes or so of leading duo Primoz Roglic [Jumbo-Visma] and Tadej Pogacar [UAE Team Emirates] - to try a Hail Mary.