Race Rewind: How we won the 2019 Tour de Yorkshire

05 May 2020

Race Rewind: How we won the 2019 Tour de Yorkshire

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It’s May 5th – one year to the day since Chris Lawless became the first British victor of the Tour de Yorkshire. The fact this was the team’s first race in new colours, with a new backer and a new sporting project, made it that bit sweeter. Here is the story of how the race was won – with the help of Lawless, Eddie Dunbar and Sport Director Servais Knaven.

The world was a very different place 12 months ago. Looking back at the memorable scenes of spectator-lined climbs on the queen stage, at times it was hard to see where the crowd ended and the peloton began. Riders flashed by a wall of fans, spread across the 175 kilometres. 
 
Earlier, Team INEOS’ riders had lined up in Halifax’s Piece Hall. There was a different colour jersey for everyone to get used to – not least for Chris Lawless. 24 hours earlier he’d sprinted to second place in Scarborough. A second podium finish in as many days, he’d come away bitterly disappointed not to take a stage victory. His mood was boosted slightly by a trip to the podium. He was in the race lead, level on time with Alexander Kamp (Riwal Readynez), the rider who had edged him out in the seafront sprint. It was the slenderest of margins to lead a race and an incredibly tight situation, with 15 other riders all within 10 seconds of the jersey on his shoulders.
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Overnight the team had formulated a plan. Lawless was set to receive the backing of the team, but with the general classification so tight, it was essential to have options on the run-in.
 
Servais Knaven sets the scene: “We had three cards to play on Sunday. Everything was really close, so it was a bit of a risk to play one card only. The plan was to keep things open by controlling the race, and the idea was for Chris Froome and Eddie Dunbar to be ready on the penultimate climb, with Chris Lawless following the moves behind.” 

In order to execute that plan (151km deep into the stage), the team still needed to have those cards in play. With the 2018 edition of the race featuring a very similar queen stage and final run into Leeds, key tactical lessons were taken away.
 
Lawless, who had shaken off a knee injury prior to the race, explained: “Looking at the course – if you’ve got a team that’s strong enough to ride on the front and control it you’ve got a chance. Not just that, but doing it sensibly. The year before Astana were in our position but they let the break get out too far and left themselves with too much to do. They ran out of guys and that’s how they lost the race in 2018.” 
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Leonardo Basso and Ian Stannard had the task of shouldering that weight between them, setting a tempo to keep the nine-man break in check. Never letting the advantage get out of hand.
 
“It was really structured well,” remembers Dunbar. Yogi and Leo had done a great job controlling it all day.
 
“We did take control but I think a lot of teams thought we were going to blow the race to bits. I think everyone probably expected Chris to lose the jersey because it’s quite a difficult stage. He showed that he was going well and he’s a guy that can get over punchy climbs. He realised that he had the backing from the guys and you could see from the start that he was really up for it. Even when the race was hard, he was there and he had the legs.”
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Park Rash – or the ‘Cote de Park Rash’ for one day a year – was the first major challenge of the day. At 2.2km, with an average gradient of almost 10%, it’s an infamous climb that really drew in the crowds. But rather than light up the race here – the team stood firm.
Chris Lawless

Chris Lawless

Park Rash, that’s probably the hardest climb of the day, but it’s so narrow that you can just shut the road down with one team. We knew that’s what we were going to do.
“I remember coming up Park Rash,” recalls Dunbar. “There’s a good photo of us all spread across the road coming up there. We went super easy up there. Because it’s such a steep climb, and obviously it’s well known around Yorkshire, it was full of people. I guess most people assumed we’d ride hard up it and it would split. We almost came to a standstill, but the minute we hit the top we completely went for it in case there was any wind. It took a lot of people by surprise I think. It was a really narrow, twisty road and it was 60-65kph the whole way down. That was a really cool memory because we were all there, kind of leading the rest of the peloton into a false hope that the stage was going to be easy. That’s one bit that stood out.”
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At the front of a race in a new jersey. It didn’t get much better, and the pictures on Park Rash were a great memento for the members of the team, particularly Helen Mortimer and Greet Verhulst, who had toiled and endured sleepless nights behind the scenes to get everything ready for Team INEOS’ big debut.

Everything had to change, from the stickers on our vehicles, to every piece of clothing, all the way to the website you’re reading this on. The aim was for ‘Project Switch’ to work seamlessly. The team went to bed as Team Sky and woke up as Team INEOS. No mean feat four months into the season!
 
Chris Froome had attended the official team launch four days earlier, but had not indulged himself with a pub lunch at the venue – The Fountaine Inn in Linton, West Yorkshire.
 
Froomey had delighted the crowds during the week, and the four-time Tour de France winner was about to light it up on Otley Chevin to mark the beginning of the run-in. 
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As the tactical game of chess began, Lawless knew this was a make or break moment: “The Chevin is a pretty hard climb, so that was where the big stress was for me really – just trying to stay in. The team had said to Froomey and Eddie that if they could go on their own, then give it a shot. Just make sure no one else is there with you.”
 
Dunbar added: “We didn’t want to put ourselves on the back foot and I think sometimes the best form of defence is attack. We did that. Knowing that (Owain) Doull and (Michal) Golas were still with Lawless at that time, I think we had every side of it covered.”
 
It would be the Irishman who helped push the odds further into the team’s favour, with his counter-attack seeing him spring free, opening out a 20-second gap and taking three bonus seconds at Tinshill in the process.
 
He continued: “It was really cool to watch back. It was a different style of racing that the team went for. It was quite an aggressive style with a lot of attacking. People possibly didn’t expect that from a team like us because they’re so used to us being in control. We were still in control, but we went about it with a different approach. It was set up perfectly, Froome did a good attack and put a lot of guys under pressure. It was easy for me to follow on a climb like that and go over the top. My move caught them off guard I think as they were all watching Froome and they weren’t thinking about me. It was easy to see that so I went for it.”
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Chris Lawless

Chris Lawless

“While that was going on I’d been spat on the Chevin but managed to get back on. With 5km to go, that was when I pretty much knew Van Avermaet was going to attack.”
As had been the case one year previously, after tackling some of Yorkshire’s most infamous climbs over four and a half hours, it would be the seemingly innocuous ramps on the run into the centre of Leeds that would decide the victory.
 
From the team car, Knaven could see it coming together: “Chris Lawless was super strong at this point as he was able to come back to Eddie. After that it made things more straightforward tactically. We only had one option and we knew Greg Van Avermaet was going to attack to try and take the jersey. We were ready for that, and in the end it just came down to the legs on the run into Leeds. Chris was super strong and motivated.”

Lawless takes up the story. “With 5km to go, that was when I pretty much knew Van Avermaet was going to attack. He’d done exactly the same thing one year before. I just had to make sure I was on his wheel for that, and it would come down to whether I had the legs. If I did, I did, and if not, at least I’d given it my best shot.”
 
Did having the jersey on his back give him that little bit extra?
 
“I’m not sure it was the jersey. I think racing at home gives you more of a lift, especially when you know you can get a result. I think that’s what might give you that extra – even if it’s just half a percent – that can be the difference between staying on the wheel and losing it. If you can’t stay on the wheel, that five seconds quickly turns into 10, 20, 30 seconds.” 
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Lawless never lost the wheel, with second place and the resulting bonus seconds enough to ensure he took the overall victory and the biggest win of his career. Dunbar held on to finish just two seconds later, solidifying third place overall.
 
Sitting behind the peloton, Knaven and the guys in the team car didn’t quite trust their mental maths at the finish, preferring to wait for official confirmation.
 
“Of course we were all a little bit unsure when they crossed the finish line,” he admitted. “It’s always quite hectic and you don’t always get the information you need to know. We were waiting for Radio Tour to tell us he’d won the overall. In the end that was the most important thing.
 
“It was a race where Chris learned a lot as a bike rider – being one of the leaders, making mistakes, learning from them and ultimately having the legs to win it overall. It was very impressive from the whole team, as without those guys controlling things then we couldn’t have won the GC.”
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Eddie Dunbar

Eddie Dunbar

He was the only one that was actually able to go with Van Avermaet. He stood up to show what he could do and it really paid off for him in the end. It was an excellent team performance that day and we even came away with the team prize to top it off.
For Lawless, the imposed halt to the racing calendar has finally allowed him to take stock of a memorable victory – 12 months on.
 
Summing up, he explained: “Obviously I was pretty overwhelmed straight after. But then because the rest of the year is so busy, and then as soon as the winter starts you’re thinking about the next year and the Classics, you sort of forget about it. It’s only really been in this last week that I’ve started thinking about it again. People are putting it on Instagram and tweeting about it because it’s the anniversary of it. And obviously there’s no race this year which is a shame.
 
“I’ve still got my jersey with the numbers on, but I haven’t got round to framing it yet. I think eventually when I get my own house I’ll get it stuck up on the wall.” 
Team INEOS behind the scenes - Tour de Yorkshire stage four

Team INEOS behind the scenes - Tour de Yorkshire stage four

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