Tom Pidcock set to watch and learn in Grand Tour debut at Vuelta a España

Tom Pidcock’s career trajectory may suggest a young man in a hurry, but for now the Olympic gold medallist is putting his Tour de France ambitions on the back burner. The 22-year-old winner of the Tokyo Games men’s mountain bike race will make his Grand Tour debut this weekend with the Ineos Grenadiers team at the Vuelta a España, which begins in Burgos with a prologue time trial on Saturday.

Pidcock is the youngest of the “new wave” of versatile riders, such as the double Tour de France winner Tadej Pogacar of the UAE Emirates team, and the Tour stage winners Mathieu van der Poel of Alpecin-Fenix and Wout van Aert of Jumbo-Visma, who excel in multiple disciplines. But when asked if he would be starting the 2022 Tour de France, the Yorkshireman responded with a flat and emphatic “No”.

Instead, Pidcock is seeking Grand Tour experience in Spain, although based on his impact on the road racing scene already, it is possible that he could teach some of his elders a thing or two. After suggesting that he might start the Tour in 2023, he emphasised that for now his focus is more on one-day races, such as Paris-Roubaix, which this year will be raced in October.

“I’ve won the junior and under 23 versions of Paris-Roubaix, so there’s only one more to go,” he said. “It’s a goal, and it’s also one of my favourite races. I don’t know if I’ll ride this year, but for sure I want to try to win it some time.”

Pidcock will be at the Vuelta, ostensibly, to watch and learn, playing a supporting role to the 2021 Giro d’Italia champion Egan Bernal and his team’s co-leaders; the Olympic road race champion, Richard Carapaz, and Adam Yates.

“I’ve been celebrating the Olympics,” Pidcock said. “I’ve been enjoying every minute. The Olympics is something that some people work their whole careers towards. I’ve done it already at my first try, and at 21. I think it’s a massive achievement and I’ve let that sink in.

“I probably won’t be great in the first week [of the Vuelta] and people should perhaps forget about me riding the race. I’ll just roll along and take it day by day. Maybe I’ll start feeling good and motivated but there’s no plan.”

Whatever his own form, Pidcock will be expected to support another of Ineos Grenadiers’ multi-pronged leadership strategies, this time with Bernal, Carapaz and Yates primed to cover all the bases in the general classification.

Although Carapaz secured a deserved third place in Paris, it was a strategy that crashed and burned in this year’s Tour, leading Tao Geoghegan Hart to say: “You can’t protect four riders in the Tour – it’s never going to happen.”

However the Vuelta, lacking the pressure-cooker frenzy of the French race and the gamechanging aggression of the absent Pogacar, will offer different challenges, including nine summit finishes, a defending champion with a point to prove, and anticipated searing heat.

The 2020 Vuelta champion, Primoz Roglic, winner in Japan of the Olympic time trial, is on a mission to reinvigorate his Grand Tour career after being forced out of the Tour de France due to crash injuries.

Bernal, meanwhile, winner of the 2019 Tour and this year’s Giro, starts the Spanish race seeking a hat-trick of Grand Tour wins and is apparently almost back to full fitness after being plagued by back problems in 2020. The Colombian said he may have to “put up with” back issues for “some more months” but added that it was not significant enough to hamper his racing.

“I rested up after the Giro, and I had Covid-19, so I had to stop for some weeks and then get back into it,” Bernal said. “It’s not been the ideal preparation, but I hope to be in good shape.”

The fly in the ointment of the Ineos Grenadiers multi-leader plan at the Tour was both the chaotic nature of the opening stages, which led to numerous crashes, and the volatile attacking surges of Pogacar. Neither will be factors in the Vuelta, with the double Tour winner opting to give the Spanish race a miss. Quizzed once again over his team’s strategy, Carapaz played his usual dead bat. “The road will decide,” the Ecuadorian said. “It always does.”

“It’s not so easy to decide who the leader is,” Bernal said. “But we’ve got a good team, so it’s important to be very honest.”

“We have a lot of leaders but it gives us options,” Yates concluded. “We’ll try to keep ourselves out of trouble and hopefully having options can help us toward the end of the race.”

In the absence of Pogacar, they may be proved right, with the Vuelta contenders facing the music in an almost absurdly difficult final week, climaxing with a 34-kilometre time trial. Time will tell if a further Ineos Grenadiers’ multi-leadership strategy will prove a stroke of genius or just another broken record.