The Sky/INEOS project has had the largest team budget in cycling for years, however in 2022 the Grenadiers did not win a Grand Tour for the first time since 2014. In terms of the pinnacle of cycling, the Tour de France, they have not been close to victory for the last three years. Is that set to change in 2023? In this article we will analyse the team’s countless GC riders and the prospects who they rely on to return the team to its glory days.
The best GC rider of INEOS in 2022 and perhaps the lowest paid. Despite some down years in the lockdown era, Geraint Thomas proved that even at age 36 he could progress and reach new heights. The Welshman not only finished third in the Tour de France 2022, far clear of anyone not named Pogacar or Vingegaard, but he performed at a higher level than in 2018 when he won the race – see further analysis here.
Thomas has a contract with INEOS until 2023 and it is not clear for how long he will continue to ride. It will probably depend on his results in 2023, where he will most likely attempt to win a Giro d’Italia plentiful in time-trial kilometres. If he arrives in his 2022 Tour shape he will start as a favourite for the podium but victory will be extremely difficult if Evenepoel attends in decent condition. Even so, Thomas winning the Giro seems the most plausible Grand Tour victory to imagine for INEOS in 2023 given the juggernauts that will be attending the Tour de France. Absent some remarkable improvement in Pidcock’s GC level or Dani Martinez’ Grand Tour consistency, it is possible that once again Thomas will be the strongest INEOS GC rider in 2023.
Below is a graph with all of Thomas’ climbing performances from our database. It is a new style of graph (recommended to view in light mode), whereby if you click or move the cursor on a dot, it will expand to show additional information about the relevant performance – ᵉw/kg, time, climb, year, distance, gradient, elevation gain, average speed and VAM. The trend-lines are the same as the usual graphs, which were used for the w/kg levels.
Perhaps the most talented rider on INEOS, and certainly one of the highest paid, Tom Pidcock has not yet finished in the Top 10 in a World-Tour stage-race or a 2.Pro/2.1 stage-race that includes big mountains. Pidcock has raced for only 37 and 46 days on the road in 2021 and 2022, while splitting his focus also to cyclo-cross and cross-country mountain bike where has has been more successful.
Undoubtedly Pidcock is a huge talent. He can definitely produce good w/kg as he proved in the Alpe d'Huez stage in this year's Tour de France, beating Louis Meintjes by 48 seconds from a breakaway. Pidcock pushed an estimated 5.78 ᵉw/kg for 41:54, which is close to the green trend-line (Grand Tour Top 10 level), after spending a lot of energy bridging to the breakaway. Pidcock is small in size but can perform well in classics which is suggestive of a large absolute power output like Evenepoel showed prior to his Tour of Norway breakout. In 2021 Pidcock won De Brabantse Pijl and was extremely close to winning Amstel Gold Race against top competition, which suggests that Pidcock's w/kg ceiling is much higher than he has showed so far. But can he reach the climbing level of Remco Evenepoel, Jonas Vingegaard or even Tadej Pogacar? It is unlikely, however Pidcock has elite skills in other areas that many top GC riders do not, including his descending and uphill punch. In terms of his time trial, this an unknown. Pidcock has not taken time-trials seriously in races for the last two years but there is clearly latent ability in the discipline, as he finished 4th in U23 European Championships in 2020 and won the junior World Championships in 2017 with a harder course than usual.
Pidcock is not just an above-average descender, he is one of the best in the world in what is a frequently neglected skill in cycling with so much attention on watts. On technical descents he should be able to take back time if he is dropped by better climbers, maybe even more than a minute on occasion, like Julian Alaphilippe in the 2019 Tour off the Col d'Iseran when he was doing everything to keep the Maillot Jaune.
Whether Pidcock can be a Grand Tour winning rider remains to be seen. His potential is huge but whether he can achieve that potential on the road will depend on if he chooses to completely focus on the discipline, as you cannot win a Grand Tour just on talent. Cadel Evans won the cross-country World Cup multiple times and Michael Rassmusen became a World Champion in the same discipline but in their best GC years they focused on the road. In terms of seriously competing for the Tour de France GC in the medium term, Pidcock is INEOS' most realistic candidate given his untapped talent, physical stature and flashes of high level climbing.
The American Magnus Sheffield is certainly one of the biggest talents on INEOS, winning De Brabantse Pijl as a teenager in his debut WorldTour season. In the Tour of Norway Sheffield proved that he could climb very well for a bigger rider (PCS has Sheffield listed as 74kg). Despite finishing almost two minutes after Remco Evenepoel, the American pushed around 6w/kg for over 30 minutes on the steep Stavsro climb (10.5km, 8.7%), finishing together with his teammate Tao Geoghegan Hart.
Given his young age, huge engine and support from INEOS, Sheffield has the potential to be the best time-trialist in the world. As a 20 year old in the 2022 World Champs ITT Sheffield was fourth after the second check point. He would have very likely finished in the Top 5 if not for his crash in the final part of the course.
It would be interesting to see what Sheffield will do in World Tour stage race in 2023 or whether INEOS will have him focus on the Classics. Even with minimal weight loss, with his Tour of Norway climbing legs and a long time-trial he should be able to Top 10 Paris-Nice in March. It might sound ridiculous now, but from the current INEOS riders Sheffield is perhaps the most likely to be competitive in GC in the Tour de France in three to five years. This seems at odds with the comments above regarding Pidcock, but there is no guarantee Pidcock will focus completely on the road, whilst Sky/INEOS have a track record of transforming riders like Sheffield into competitive GC riders (Froome, Wiggins, Thomas). However to win the Tour nowadays compared to the Sky era the rider must have a strong time-trial and exceptional w/kg like the supertalents of Pogačar, Vingegaard, Evenepoel, Ayuso and Uijtdebroeks. In this regard, Sheffield's physique is battling against him but even in the the 'worst case scenario' he is going to be a Top 5 time-trial rider in the world and an elite classics rider.
Daniel Felipe Martinez
Martinez finished fifth in the Giro d'Italia 2021, while riding primarily as a domestique for Egan Bernal. He had a great first half of the season in 2022, winning Basque Country and nearly winning Paris-Nice, but his second half of the season was underwhelming, with no Grand Tour success. Martinez is 26 and is in his prime so huge gains in his w/kg are unlikely. His climbing level (fringe Grand Tour podium trend-line)and time-trial ability are good but not great. His descending is horrible but even with that it is possible to win a Grand Tour as proven by Chris Froome in his early years. Martinez does not have the watts or the consistency (particularly in hot conditions) to win Le Tour but he is definitely capable of reaching the podium of the Giro d'Italia if he is paired with Thomas in 2023.
Carlos Rodriguez took a big leap in 2022 and proved he could ride a Grand Tour as INEOS' GC leader. The Andalusian is an adept descender, has solid w/kg and displayed a much improved time trial in La Vuelta. Although contending for a podium spot for the first couple of weeks, Rodriguez ended up in seventh in the Vuelta a Espana 2022 (before his stage 18 crash he was fourth in GC). Unfortunately for INEOS, Rodriguez' contract is running out in 2023 and if the rumours are right then his next team will be Movistar. Big GC riders are signed early, particularly when they are the right nationality, many months before the contract is announced.
However INEOS might get a taste of their own medicine as they signed Richard Carapaz before he won the Giro 2019 for Movistar. If Rodriguez takes another leap in 2023 (he turns only 22 in February), Thomas retires and Pidcock does not improve, INEOS' best GC rider for the future might be walking out the door by the end of the season.
Tao Geoghegan Hart
The Giro d'Italia 2020 winner Tao Geoghegan Hart showed some solid performances in 2022 after a season to forget in 2021. Unfortunately he crashed in the Vuelta a Espana in the treacherous run-in to the ascent of Les Praeres but before that he was performing well. It is unlikely Tao will win another Grand Tour but never write off someone who has done a generational level performance, as he did on Piancavallo (above the red trend-line). This is the highest level climbing performance achieved by anyone on the current INEOS roster and, as shown by Jai Hindley in the Giro 2022, even a return to close to that level is enough in the Giro. If everything goes right for Tao during his preparation and the three weeks of racing, he probably can Top 5 a Grand Tour in the next couple of years.
Arensman finished 6th in the 2022 Vuelta at age 22, despite performing poorly in the flat time-trial due to overheating in Alicante. Arensman seems like the archetypal INEOS GC contender on paper, with steady climbing and an excellent time trial. However there is a huge problem with Arensman in the modern era, where the best climbers also time trial at an exceptional level. He is very tall, over 190 centimetres and is allergic to steep climbs. He has not yet performed well on 8%+ gradients and he is more comfortable on steady 5-6% climbs like the end of Sierra Nevada where he rode away from the breakaway in the big ring to high altitude. Perhaps there will be a performance upgrade after his move from DSM to INEOS, where he is scheduled to ride the Giro in 2023. The Italian Grand Tour will include three time-trials and potentially an even weaker overall start list compared to previous years as many climbers who cannot time-trial will take their opportunity to go to the Tour de France with its one short hilly time-trial. Arensman could podium the upcoming Giro but his climbing level has not improved significantly since he came second in GC in Tour de l'Avenir behind Tadej Pogacar in 2018.
Sivakov seemed like a huge talent before the 2020 Tour but after multiple crashes and some down years he has been working mostly as a mountain domestique in Grand Tours (for Yates in Vuelta 2021 and Carapaz in Giro 2022). Before the 2022 Vuelta he seemed to have turned a corner, flying in San Sebastian where he finished second and winning the overall at Vuelta a Burgos. However his streak of unlucky incidents in Grand Tours continued as he had to abandon the Vuelta after a brilliant time trial due to a positive COVID test. In 2023 he will most likely return primarily to domestique duties.
Plapp is another exciting U23 rider for INEOS. The Australian performed well on Jebel Hafeet and Tour of Norway climb Stavsro in just his first few months of WorldTour racing. At the start of Volta a Catalunya Stage 6 he lit up the Llebres Mussara dropping everyone except his teammate Richard Carapaz and Sergio Higuita on just a 6% gradient! After that Plapp got in the team car and left the race, with his work being done. Plapp is an excellent time-trial rider and has proven he can push huge watts on climbs. His ceiling is not as high as Remco Evenepoel's but, just like Sheffield, he can be converted into a Grand Tour podium contender.
After the horrific crash in training at the start of 2022, Bernal has still not recovered to his pre-crash level. Regardless, it is good to see him competing in races after such a terrible accident. Bernal won the Giro in 2021 and Tour in 2019 but his most impressive performances in Grand Tours are from the third week of the Vuelta 2021. Bernal wants to race in Tour de France but even with his peak pre-crash shape it would be impossible for him to beat Vingegaard or Pogačar as they both time-trial and climb better than Bernal has ever done.
Leonard is an exciting young prospect from Canada. He caught the attention of INEOS with his high level climbing performances in Italian junior races and rumoured off the charts physiological testing. The 18 year old did not ride against the best competition there but he is definitely a rider to watch out for in 2023.
Tulett is 21 and his most impressive performance was in the Settimana Coppi e Bartali race in 2022, winning the queen stage in San Marino up a 14 minute climb. Tulett finished ahead of Marc Hirschi, Simon Carr and his teammate Eddie Dunbar on this hard stage which has been a testing ground for the likes of Vingegaard in the very recent past. Established riders like Geraint Thomas and Vincenzo Nibali lost more than a minute to the young British talent. Tulett earned a spot in the Giro d'Italia squad at the last minute and was a valuable mountain domestique for Richard Carapaz, showing a good level on the Fedaia climb deep into the third week. His time-trial is above average for a rider of his small size and he is steadily improving his results each year, after being bought out from Alpecin at the end of 2021.
New signing Leo Hayter won the extremely hard Stage 3 of the Baby Giro this year, beating second place finisher Romain Gregoire by almost five minutes. Hayter was not the best climber in this race but his fatigue resistance and pacing is great. However many of his competitors like Romain Gregoire and Lenny Martinez were younger than Hayter by almost two years, who is a third year U23 rider. His time trial ability is good, as expected for young British INEOS recruits, finishing third in the U23 ITT World Championships this year. It is hard to say how Hayter will perform in the medium term in World Tour races but he is definitely climbing better on long climbs than his brother Ethan Hayter, who is more of a puncheur / versatile sprinter.
INEOS currently have a lot of very good and very well paid GC riders, but are missing the highest tier of GC rider on their roster. Pogačar, Evenepoel, Roglič and Vingegaard are all riding for their close rivals, whilst young supertalents Ayuso and Uijtdebroeks are more likely to win the Tour de France in the future than any of the young riders on the current INEOS talents. None of the INEOS riders above the age of 24 (Thomas, Bernal, Geoghegan Hart, Sivakov, Martinez) can realistically be expected to win the Tour as they all have reached their peak or are very close to it and that peak is not close enough to the very best. This probably was the reason why the expensive Carapaz and Adam Yates went to other teams this off season as they also cannot realistically win the Tour and are unlikely to improve. INEOS do have the deepest stockpile of young talent of any team in cycling and they will be hoping that one of them does take that step up to A-tier GC rider (Sheffield, Pidcock, Plapp, Leonard, Tulett, L.Hayter, Arensman, Rodriguez). Arensman and Rodriguez have already proven that they can Top 10 a Grand Tour but they are still far away from competing for a Tour de France win.