Luke Rowe joked that he will need to brush up on his Spanish as he goes into the Tour de France as the only Brit in the Ineos Grenadiers team.
With Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas left out, the 30-year-old Rowe will start his sixth Tour lining up behind defending champion Egan Bernal of Colombia and the Ecuadorian Richard Carapaz.
Sir Dave Brailsford has insisted this remains a global team with a British heart, but Rowe said there was no denying a change of accent on the team bus.
“We’ve got four native Spanish speakers on the team,” Rowe said. “They all speak pretty good English so that helps but it’s got a slightly different feel.
“Every Tour I’ve done, Froomey and ‘G’ have been here and guys like Wout (Poels), so there’s been a bit of a reshuffle and a changing of the guard.
“It’s certainly changed a lot but you get on with the job. We’ve got a good bunch of boys whether you’re Spanish, German or Mexican, whatever. We’ve got a similar mindset, we want to get s*** done.”
It is not just the riders that have changed this year, with Ineos certain to miss the considerable influence of sports director Nico Portal, who died suddenly at the age of 40 earlier this year.
Portal, who oversaw eight of the team’s Grand Tour victories in their various guises, was valued not only for his tactical nous, but also his ability to keep the riders calm and happy no matter the circumstances.
Rowe described Portal as something of a “father figure” to the squad, and told the story of how Portal helped him when he had to withdraw from his first career Grand Tour, the 2013 Vuelta a Espana.
Today would have been Nico Portal’s 41st Birthday.
In our thoughts and always in our hearts – Happy Birthday Nico. pic.twitter.com/u923C2abMi
— INEOS Grenadiers (@INEOSGrenadiers) April 23, 2020
Rowe said he was in tears when he climbed into the team car being driven by Portal, but a few hours later, by the time he got out at the stage finish, he was laughing and smiling.
“That’s just the way Nico rubbed off on you,” he said.
The team will carry their own tribute to Portal during the Tour, though not one visible to those watching as his name will be stitched on to the inside of their jerseys.
“He always had our backs,” Rowe said. “Nobody needs to see it but we know it’s there. He’ll have our backs for the future and we’ll try and do him proud over these next few weeks.”
When the race begins in Nice on Saturday, it will do so in a city now on red alert amid a rise in coronavirus cases.
⚠ In 2020, let's protect the race and its riders!
⚠ En 2020, protégez-vous et protégez les coureurs.
🎙🇳🇱 @tom_dumoulin – @JumboVismaRoad demande à tous les fans du Tour de France de porter un masque à proximité des coureurs. #TDF2020 pic.twitter.com/oKujkNtR6s
— Tour de France™ (@LeTour) August 27, 2020
Rowe admitted there was a “strange vibe” as teams prepare in their bubbles, having waved goodbye to friends and family who they will not see again until the whole show is over.
Questions have been raised about whether or not the race will make it all the way to Paris, and Rowe said health and safety had to come first.
“I’m just part of this circus and whatever they say, are the rules, I’ve just got to abide by them,” he said. “You can only have confidence in the organisation.
“Sport aside, we have to look at the bigger picture and protect ourselves and our families. This is the peak of our calendar and a national sporting event, it’s a big deal, but some things come ahead of that.
“Hopefully we make it to Paris and have a good three-week battle, but health and safety has got to remain the number one priority and we’re all on the same wavelength there.”