Just Keep Pounding: The Tactic That Worked for Bahrain By William Fotheringham | Images by Chris Auld

Picking up the phone to Bahrain-McLaren head Rod Ellingworth on Friday morning, with one rolling stage and one time trial left before the Tour de France reached Paris, there was only one opening gambit possible: “which move will it be today?” 

By William Fotheringham | Images by Chris Auld

On Wednesday en route to Col de la Loze, Ellingworth’s orange-clad team channeled Team Sky with the tactic known technically as “blast up the mountain in a train then see what the leader has left”. On Thursday on the Col de Glières Bahrain went for the old Movistar/Banesto/Reynolds favorite, “one guy in each group up the road, leader attacks from behind, ideally with a teammate to pull him out of the bunch.” Textbook stuff, great to watch, and a welcome break from the sight of Jumbo-Visma chugging along on the front of the peloton.

For Friday, the best Ellingworth could promise was that the team’s sprinter Sonny Colbrelli might give it a lash in the finish, and that the leader Mikel Landa would begin mental prep for Saturday’s time trial the minute the stage ended. “I don’t think he will move anywhere in the classification [in the time trial], but we’ve been working on it all year and we want to push it as hard as we can,” he said. But the thinking behind the two-stage display in the toughest Alpine stages merited another look, both in the context of this Tour, and maybe others.

Ellingworth pointed out that from his years at Team Sky, which he left in 2019 to move to Bahrain, he has a good idea of what is going through the minds of a team that is trying to keep a lid on things in the Tour, as Jumbo-Visma had been since Roglic took the yellow jersey in the Pyrenees. “From controlling the race, I know what they don’t want to happen, and I also know that when those guys get on the bus in the morning, no matter how they strong look on television, they feel vulnerable. So we didn’t want to just let them ride as they want to.”

Landa lost time on the windswept stage to Lavaur (1min 21sec) then showed a few days later on the road to Laruns that he was climbing as strongly as Roglic, Egan Bernal and Tadej Pogacar. “We thought it was game over at that point but then we thought we’d stick to the plan, which was to hit it hard in the final week. So the middle week was about not doing much, keeping it under control, then have two big days in the Alps.”

“We didn’t think he could get first or second from where he was. The two Slovenians are just too strong, but the podium wasn’t out of the question. The whole point for us was that we know that all those guys – Richie Porte, Rigoberto Uran, Adam Yates – they always have at least one bad day. Mikel is like Steady Eddy, he just keeps going at that point, so we thought that if we kept pounding away they would crack, and they did yesterday.”

It came as a surprise to many to see Bahrain make a second attempt to move Landa up the standings on Thursday. After all, he had dropped 1min 20sec to stage winner Miguel Angel Lopez the previous day after his team had driven the race from the foot of the Col de la Madeleine to the final kilometers of the Col de la Loze. That missed the point. The pressure Bahrain put on during the Wednesday stage on all the contenders for the top 10 would also make itself felt the following day.

Mikel Landa (left) on stage 17 of the Tour de France. Image: Chris Auld

“We can do something about it, that was our attitude. The point is that you had to combine the days. The Tour is about the long game. If we hit them on Wednesday they might not crack then, but they might crack on Thursday.” And so it proved, with Yates and Uran cracking definitively on the Col de Glières as Jumbo-Visma kept Landa within reach, and Richie Porte suffering a puncture on the gravel section at the top of the climb. The move shifted Landa up two places in the overall, to fifth, and could have taken him to fourth had Porte not been fortunate enough to get help from Tom Dumoulin and Wout van Aert as he fought his way back to the leaders.

For Ellingworth, something else was in play as well as whether Landa finished fourth or seventh overall. Making his team “do something about it” fits into his long-term plan. “When I took the team on in October last year [he had several months’ gardening leave between Ineos and Bahrain], the view was we were trying to win the Tour in the future. Every step, every meter, every kilometer is working towards that. We keep looking at ourselves and other teams, why they did things, how they did them. With Mikel we’ve got someone who is very competitive so if we get things right, who knows?”

For 2021, McLaren pull out due to major losses because of Covid-19, but having gone through financial uncertainty earlier in the year, Ellingworth says he is now assured of Bahrain’s backing. One signing has been announced to date, Jack Haig, and there will be others, mainly young riders, he says. “We can go forward with confidence, we’ve got the budget to crack on. It was a devastating year for everyone, it was tough with McLaren leaving. It wasn’t just about keeping the guys on track and preparing for when the season began, but it was dealing with financial issues. If we are where we are now, that means we’ve done a good job.”

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