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Comment: Team selection is an art and even the best don’t always get it right

William Fotheringham
16 Sep 2020

While Geraint Thomas just finished second at Tirreno, Team Ineos won't have a rider in the final top 10 of the Tour de France

Team selections are a sticky area at any level, in any sport. Pick a winning combination and you are the omniscient all-powerful god of all coaches. Do the opposite and the questions will come pouring in: should you have done this, or that? What if you had selected this athlete rather than the other?

On Sunday, with defending champion Egan Bernal going backwards at a rate of knots as the Tour de France went up the biggest summit finish of the first two weeks, the Grand Colombier, the obvious question was: did Team Ineos make a mistake in leaving out the 2018 Tour winner Geraint Thomas?

The question was given far greater weight because just as Bernal was struggling, rather than sitting at home in Monaco in a huff Thomas was making a serious pitch for victory in the Tirreno-Adriatico stage race in Italy.

Tirreno isn’t the Tour, the field doesn't have the same stellar quality and its hills aren’t the Alps, but it’s still one of the hardest stage races in the world, and you don’t get to within 17 seconds of the overall win in the final time-trial if your condition is poor.

Thomas admitted in an interview with the Guardian’s Jeremy Whittle that he had struggled to keep on top of things during lockdown, and implied that his form wasn’t at its absolute peak running into the Tour.

'I could have gone and done a job, but there are other guys in the team that can do that job,' he said. 'I feel that I’m at the stage of my career now where I want to make the most of every year.'

Sir Bradley Wiggins, for one, was adamant that, whatever his form, Thomas should have been selected for the Tour. In his eyes, Thomas would have been a serious asset even if he wasn’t at the very top of his game, mainly because of his extensive experience.

In a particularly stressful Tour, with the overall contenders expected to be at the front as early as day two, and with a succession of tricky hilly stages, that should count for something.

Thomas first rode the Tour 13 years ago and has turned into one of the most seasoned Tour de France riders in the peloton.

He’s ridden it 10 times, only failed to finish it once, and apart from that first Tour, he has always been in the thick of things even when working for the likes of Wiggins or Chris Froome. By contrast, Team Ineos's chosen replacement, Richard Carapaz, was making his Tour debut.

What would Thomas have brought to Team Ineos along with his experience, which might have served to reduce some of the pressure on Bernal or Carapaz?

Even when not at his absolute best, such as when sitting up at certain mountain top finishes in 2015 and 2016, Thomas was capable of finishing 15th overall.

This year, if he was at the level of Tom Dumoulin or Wout Van Aert, neither of whom are pure specialist climbers, he would have been tilting for a place in the top 10 and would have remained close to Bernal at key moments in the mountains, even if not at the points – for example on the stage into Laruns – when only the very best climbers were in the front.

Bernal would have benefited, but given the way he fell to bits on the Colombier, Thomas’s presence likely wouldn’t have saved him there.

The one point at which Thomas’s presence would truly have changed matters was on the windy stage into Lavaur, where Ineos forced a split but then had to stall their effort because Carapaz had punctured.

With Thomas in the front as a co-leader – and it’s very hard to envisage him not making that split given his history of racing in these conditions – Ineos would have put more time into Pogacar, which could have changed the entire race.

Questions about team selections don't arise that often in cycling, because most WorldTour teams don’t have a plethora of leaders.

Where there is debate, it tends to be about a team’s priorities, because (for example) a sprinter requires a different back-up squad compared to a classification leader. Thus Groupama-FDJ left their in-form sprinter Arnaud Démare out of this year’s Tour in order not to compromise Thibaut Pinot’s back-up squad.

Most teams have a fairly obvious hierarchy, and most, if they had a former Tour winner like Geraint Thomas with even a sniff of form in the build-up to the Tour, would put him in the race.

One question which will never be answered goes back to the tragic death of Team Sky/Ineos directeur sportif Nicolas Portal this spring: would Portal have argued for Thomas’s inclusion in the Tour, and might he have worked the diplomatic strings to ensure that even if not at his best, Thomas was in there, given he had directed the Welshman nine times at the race, winning seven of those?

It’s possible to envisage an alternative scenario, Sliding Doors-style, in which Thomas was selected for the Tour this year in the hope that his form would come good, Ineos saying 'the road will decide' who is the team leader.

Looking at the riders who managed to hang on to the Jumbo-Visma train on the Grand Colombier, as Bernal struggled – Alejandro Valverde, Pello Bilbao, Richie Porte, Dumoulin and Adam Yates – it’s perfectly possible to see Thomas being among them – again even if not at his best.

It’s speculation but it underlines one fact: team selection is not a science. It’s an art and even the best practitioners don’t get it right all the time.