By Martyn Herman
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The Tour de France is only two days old but the newly-rebranded Team Ineos have already issued an emphatic response to anyone hoping a change of name for the world’s dominant cycle team might have diluted their aura.
Ineos’s eight riders, led by defending champion Geraint Thomas, did not win Sunday’s 27.6km team time trial around the streets of Brussels but they landed the first blow in a three-week battle for the coveted yellow jersey.
The team’s road captain Luke Rowe said this week it had been a “copy and paste job” since Team Sky, winners of six of the last seven Tours, morphed into Ineos this year, with Britain’s richest man, new boss Jim Ratcliffe, allowing business as usual.
It looked like that on Sunday as the men in black and burgundy roared around the Belgian capital to set a target none of the next 20 teams could match, until Dutch outfit Team Jumbo-Visma’s turbo-charged squad smashed it by 20 seconds.
It stung, but the truth is it was a great day for Thomas and team co-leader Egan Bernal as they opened time gaps on the men most expected to challenge them in the general classification (GC).
Thomas and Bernal endured nervy rides in Saturday’s 194km opener, both snagged by a mass crash in the peloton inside the last three kilometers, although it cost them no time.
A day later it was the likes of Frenchman Romain Bardet,Australia’s former Sky rider Richie Porte, Movistar’s Nairo Quintana, Adam Yates and Jakob Fuglsang who had reason to fret.
Bardet’s AG2R-Mondiale team finished 19th, trailing in 59 seconds adrift of Ineos, Porte’s Trek-Segafredo conceded 58 seconds, Quintana lost 45 seconds while Briton Yates was 21 seconds back with 11th placed Mitchelton-Scott.
Dane Fuglsang, tipped as a pre-race favorite but left bloodied and bruised by a crash on Saturday, was relieved his Astana team only lost 21 seconds to Ineos.
French enigma Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) and Italian Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain), the only man to break Team Sky’s grip in the past seven years, lost 12 and 16 seconds respectively.
All are playing catch-up, however, against a team notoriously difficult to attack, even if four-time winner Chris Froome is absent after a horrific accident in the build-up.
“It wasn’t to be for the stage victory, but this has to go down as a great day at the Tour de France,” Ineos’s Twitter feed read. “We finish second in the TTT (team time trial), taking time out of a number of GC rivals in Brussels.”
Thomas made the point that Jumbo-Visma’s Steven Kruijswijk, a dangerous all-rounder, took 20 seconds on him, but added that the team was “in a really good place.”
Porte, who at 34 is running out of time to win the Tour, tried to hide his disappointment by saying his team has targeted making big gains in the Alps and Pyrenees.
“It’s not ideal,” he said, “but I’m not throwing my toys out the cot yet. The last week is where the race will be won.”
Yates also preferred to look on the bright side, saying he was glad one of the Tour’s two time trials was done.
“It’s good to be through in one piece, we didn’t lose a chunk of time, just a little bit,” he said.
Dane Fuglsang was just happy he could contribute after suffering a cut eye and knee bruising on Saturday.
“I’m quite happy with (the time loss). I said before the Tour de France started, that for me even 30 seconds was okay,” he said.
Bradley Wiggins, who began Team Sky’s domination by winning the 2012 Tour, said it had been “superb day” for Ineos.
“I know they would have wanted to win it but they have big GC aspirations and you must put it in perspective.”
(Editing by Ken Ferris)