A quiet little village in a Belgian forest sits in near-total silence – notwithstanding the hum from its lonely restaurant.
All the locals seem to be crowded, talking about the great race for white wine, and fries at €36 a bowl. Outside, hundreds of bright red insect fire beetles jostle for relief from the spring chill in the sunlight.
This cold means Ineos Grenadiers don’t want to meet the latest miracle outside for fear of getting cold. No wonder, given how much it must have cost them to maintain one of the biggest cycling prospects.
When we met in April, Tom Bidcock had just signed a new five-year contract that is believed to be worth something in the range of €3-5 million a year. He and his team were about to race the Tour of Flanders, the one-day classic where Dylan Van Barley of Ineos will take second place.
Now Pidcock – last year’s Olympic mountain bike champion – and Ineos are looking for a bigger statement in cycling’s greatest race, the Tour de France.
They hope it will be the start of a journey back to the top, driven in large part by a uniquely British talent.
But the odds are stacked against them.
A chilly Saturday in the middle of the Belgian countryside might seem a far cry from the sweltering peaks of the Alps as the famed Team Sky train wrapped up seven touring titles via Sir Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, Geriant Thomas and Egan Bernal.
But the city of Ghent, just eight miles away, is the birthplace of Wiggins, who started this tide of success in 2012.
“They were kind of early heroes to me,” Pidcock says. Sky in 2012 was a busy year for Brad to win the Tour, [Mark] Cavendish became the world champion and Brad won the Olympic time trial.
“What motivates me is the profile that I can create and that I want to create. What is a legacy is a huge driving point for me.”
Ten years on, the team – which has been racing under its new name since 2019 – no longer holds the same stature in the sport, but they believe Leeds-born Piddcock has great potential.
Now 22, he’s in his second season with Ineos, having arrived in 2021 with a solid reputation from the junior ranks shaped in large part by his cyclocross performances.
On the roads, too, there was success winning the prestigious ‘Baby Giro’ award in 2020 – a week-long under-23 level race that has launched many of the sport’s top talents.
Last year, he used the same racing craft to win the prestigious Belgian one-day classic De Brabantse Pijl, where usually only the toughest riders from the Low Countries usually win.
Then at the beginning of this year, he went back to his roots and won the world cyclo-cross title and somehow, got famous – in cycling circles at least – for crossing Superman when he crossed the line.
It was that victory – and the diversity behind it – that sparked contract renewal talks. Many American teams wanted him for his demonstrated ability to win races on nearly every type of bike, and it’s a quality that sells. Eneos wanted him to stay.
“Tom is very much the focus of the plans,” says deputy team principal Rod Ellingworth.
“The character is… we want to win races and have love and affection for what we do, to get the fans right behind us.
“Previously, when we were trying to win the Tour, we knew we had to focus on the lasers – we didn’t always think of people from the outside. It fits the team diversity model, like in the off-road and classic road racing.”
A cyclist, Ellingworth worked closely with Sir Dave Brailsford as Team Sky’s chief performance officer – even making his sentences the same way, and in the same Derbyshire tune. It’s clear that the couple spent much of their adult lives planning get-togethers together.
More recently, Team Sky’s management has gone through a bit of a change since the glory days of the Tour de France when, according to some, it lacked style to succeed.
The iconic character, Brailsford, is still around, but now takes care of the entire Ineos sports portfolio. A massive multinational chemical company run by billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe, it is branching out across elite sport, with sailing legend Ben Ainslie and the once-all-Mercedes team now part of the stable.
The daily leadership of the cycling team comes under Ellingworth’s role.
They still have a lot of planning meetings. They are still thinking of ways to move forward, and they are still looking for the marginal gains that symbolize their first era of success.
Every hotel room booked for passengers is cleaned again by the Ineos private team, bed sheets are changed again, carpets re-cleaned, and blinds are blacked out.
There are six separate performance coaches, several degrees of poll settings depending on the importance of a particular race or stage.
So what has changed? Why are they no longer in control?
“The competition has really intensified over the past few years — it has reached a whole new level of professionalism,” says Ellingworth.
“We took it to a new level. I think there were some easy choices when we first came into the sport [in 2010].
“[Rivals] She wasn’t really looking into the details and focused on the passenger. Now, what happened over time, all the other teams learned – they just opened their eyes wide. Of course things progressed.”
Bidcock agrees that the sport is different now. Not only have the other teams absorbed Ineos’ ultra-professionalism, the speed and intensity of the peloton have increased.
“I don’t think this is possible [to win everything] In this current state of cycling.”
“The level the sport is at now, it’s not worth doing what Sky did – to control the way you did with trains and everything, especially with this style of racing.
“I mean you’re going to have to ride really fast to keep control of the races now. I think we’re adapting to the way we race.”
Brailsford coined the ‘new racing method’ after Tao Geogegan Hart’s unexpected victory in the Giro d’Italia in 2020, and Egan Bernal convincingly won the same race last year.
This year saw Richard Carrapaz’s surprise late surrender in the Dolomites that the team lose control of the Giro.
However, there is no bigger problem with Ineos’ plans than the shape of a major contender – 2020 and 2021 Tour de France winner Tadej Poujacar.
Riding for the relatively new Emirates team, the 23-year-old has been unbeatable at every race he has run during 2022, dominating his rivals without showing any pain while climbing.
In favor of Eneos their strength in depth. Besides Pidcock, they have young and abundant talent – this year’s American Magnus Sheffield won De Brabantse Pijl, while Ethan Hayter, 23, is a British talent who has already won races. Ben Tollett, 20, is another British candidate, and Australian Luke Blabb has also shown promise.
They have the grand tour winners of Bernal, Thomas and Carapaz. Adam Yates is also capable and is in his prime at 29 years old.
Thomas, now 36, is promising something of a renaissance, having won the Tour de Suisse and even showing a bit of paternal rudeness in the press in creating the flick standings within the team.
But it is widely estimated that none of them have yet come close to matching the Slovenian Pogacar.
On the eve of the Tour de France, Ineos’ mission to get back to the main goal of winning the most famous cycling race is by no means guaranteed.
For his part, Bidcock thinks he needs more time.
“I think I can win a Grand Tour, and this year I will have a better idea of my abilities,” he says. “But I need to do more stage races, too.
“I’m light enough and I think I can climb really well and I can do very good time trials when I get started on that, so I think whatever I put my mind to is possible.
“You need that kind of confidence if you want to achieve anything.”
Illingworth adds: “I always use Gerant Thomas as an example – I’ve worked with him since he was a little kid. 15 years ago we wouldn’t have said: ‘Will he win the Tour de France?'” “
“Same for Chris Froome – it wasn’t obvious. Did they have the desire? Yes. Did they have the commitment? Yes. Did they have numbers and body make-up? Yes.”
“Who knows if Tom can win the Tour, but I think he’s in this space – he has all these things.
“But I think Pogacar is totally on its own right now. And maybe yes, it can dominate for a few years.
“Sometimes I think I take it for granted when we’ve had back-to-back wins. Now you look at Pogacar’s performance and you think we did something very special.
“But we’ll do it well, that’s for sure.”