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Bicycle Racing News and Opinion,
Thursday, September 13, 2018

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2018 Tour de France | 2018 Giro d'Italia

I shall allow no man to belittle my soul by making me hate him. - Booker T. Washington

Current racing:

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Vuelta a España stage 17 reports

We posted the race organzer's stage summary with the results.

Stage winner Michael Woods' EF Education First-Drapac team sent me this:

As the final meters ticked by on Wednesday’s Vuelta a España stage, Mike Woods had a voice in his ear, urging him to ride.

“Do it for your family,” the voice shouted.

And Woods did. Over those closing seconds, he took what was remained of his strength and left it on the road. He celebrated in the fog, raising a singe hand across the line. Too tired, too steep, to truly celebrate.

And then Woods began to cry.

“My wife had a stillbirth two months ago,” Woods said in an heartbreaking post-race interview. “We lost the little guy. His name was Hunter. The whole time I was going up the climb, I was thinking of him. I wanted to win so badly for him, and I did it.”

The voice on the other end of the race radio belonged to EF Education First – Drapac p/b Cannondale sport director Juanma Garate. “It’s a very special day for me today,” Garate said. “I have been with Mike since he came to the team, and we’ve worked closely together over the last two years to arrive to this point. We’ve built up everything for this moment. Knowing what he and his family have been through this year, I wanted it for him even more. When he won, I cried like a baby in the car. I’m happier for him today than I was for myself when I a stage of the Tour.”

“To win is great,” said EF Pro Cycling CEO Jonathan Vaughters. “To overcome the sadness he and his wife have been through this year is what truly makes me grateful and humble to have someone like Mike amongst us.”

The emotional victory marks a milestone for Woods, who finished second at Liège-Bastgone-Liège this year and also a close second at a stage of the Giro d’Italia. There was a feeling of not “if,” but “when” with Woods.

The Canadian seized his opportunity on the 17th stage of the Vuelta, riding himself into the breakaway with teammate Simon Clarke. Clarke, already a stage winner at the 2018 Vuelta a España, dedicated himself to Woods’ chances. He was the first to attack on the lower slopes of the final climb. Woods had the last word, launching the final attack 480 excruciatingly steep meters from the finish line. He won atop Balcón de Bizkaia, holding off a fast closing Dylan Teuns (BMC) by five seconds.

Woods has been dubbed “Mr. Fourth Week” for his increasing strength as a grand tour goes on, and stage 17 marked what was likely his final opportunity to make optimal use of his form.

“In one stage in the first week, Woods had back luck with a crash. Maybe we could have won anyway, but Bora chased the break back for Sagan and our chances were finished,” said Garate. “Then he was in the break again. And he crashed again. And also there was another team chasing. Today was his last real chance. We knew it. He knew it.” 

Michael Woods

Michael Woods wins Vuelta stage seventeen.

While Woods clearly had the legs, the team needed every ounce of tactical acumen it could muster to deal with a large break and dwindling chances to win a stage for every team. “Once we made the break together, with the guys that were in there, it was clear that it would be best for me to work for Woods,” said Clarke. “There was some huge climbing talent in that move, and Woods is clearly the strongest climber. When we saw the composition of the group, I fully dedicated myself to Woodsy’s chances.”

Clarke was an ever-present figure near the front of the escape, particularly as the peloton began to chase in earnest. The Australian marked the first of the attacks from the leading group. And the second. And the third. His efforts saw the breakaway reach the base of Balcón de Bizkaia intact with a 3’47 head-start on the bunch.

“Simon did 50 percent, 60 percent of Mike’s victory today,” said Garate. “You watched on TV and you saw that the break arrived at the bottom of the last climb together. That was only possible because of Simon, and it was exactly what we needed to keep Mike out of trouble and as fresh as possible. If the attacks had started earlier, it would have been more of a lottery to win the stage. Keeping the break together gave Mike the best chance.”

Clarke’s work wasn’t done when the breakaway began the final climb. With seven kilometers left to race, Clarke went on the offensive, launching an attack. When Clarke’s move was neutralized, Alessandro De Marchi (BMC) countered. “It was a very difficult climb,” noted Woods. “De Marchi was pacing it pretty evenly at first. I was able to breathe well and relax. When the first attacks went, I felt like one of the strongest guys and thought I responded well. I managed to answer some of those early attacks, but then Juanma came on the radio and told me to stay relaxed. To wait, wait, wait.”

The early attacks softened the legs in the breakaway. The upper slopes proved most decisive. De la Cruz set a tempo that saw all but Woods, Majka and Teuns fall away in the final three kilometers. Woods marked an attack by Teuns and another by De la Cruz before launching his own.

“The climb is only as hard as your form is bad, and this year I felt good,” added Woods. “I love this area. Basque Country is special to me. I felt so good, and in those last few hundred meters, I could hear all the fans screaming my name.

“I had Juanma in my ear telling me to do it for my family, and I just channeled all my energy into thinking how tough this year has been,” said Woods. “I used my little guy Hunter as inspiration.”

Dylan Teuns was a close second. Here's the report his BMC team sent me:

12 September, 2018, Balcón de Bizkaia (ESP): Dylan Teuns narrowly missed out on the stage win on Vuelta a España stage 17 after a show of strength from BMC Racing Team saw him joined at the front of the race by Alessandro De Marchi with the pair finishing second and sixth respectively following another tough summit finish.

An aggressive start to stage 17 saw the battle to make the breakaway start from kilometer zero and continue onto the slopes of the first of six categorized climbs, the category three Alto de la Arboleda, which started after just 10 kilometers, of the 157-kilometer course.

In the last section of the 6.7-kilometer long ascent, the relentless pace saw a group, over 20 riders strong, go clear with both Teuns and De Marchi making it into the move that had opened up a two-minute lead after 30 kilometers of racing. The breakaway's advantage continued to rise and it was eventually sitting at over seven minutes inside 100 kilometers to go with the rest of the day's categorized climbing still to come. Teuns and De Marchi were helping to drive the tempo over the next four climbs before the breakaway hit the bottom of the brutal ascent to the finish line, the Alto del Balcón de Bizkaia, all together and ready to battle for the day's honors.

On the steep slopes of the final 7.3-kilometer long climb, which had a gradient at one point of over 23%, De Marchi was setting a hard pace in support of Teuns, who was once again motivated to go for the stage win after already securing four top five finishes in Spain.

Dylan Teuns

Dylan Teuns going deep on the final ascent of stage seventeen

The breakaway soon began to split under the pressure and eventually a select group of five riders, including Teuns, was drawn out at the front of the race and it was ultimately from this group that the winner would be decided. Teuns, as he has done on multiple occasions over the past two and a half weeks, showed his grit and determination in the final kilometers of the day, laying it all out on the road before sprinting to a close second behind Michael Woods (EF Education First - Drapac p/b Cannondale).

After a strong display of teamwork from De Marchi, he was able to continue riding his own tempo as the race unfolded ahead of him to cross the line sixth, 44 seconds behind Woods.

Dylan Teuns:
"Today was one of the stages in this last week that I was targeting and I made it into a good breakaway so I achieved the first goal of the day. It was a good group and I knew who the strongest guys in the breakaway were. It was no different to the other breakaways I have been in really with Majka, De Gendt and Mollema all there. It was good to have a lot of strong guys in there and for me, personally, it was good to have De Marchi with me as we were able to control the other guys a little more."

"We knew that the final climb would be the key point of the stage and De Marchi brought me to the bottom in a good position before setting a perfect tempo for me. I didn't need to watch the other guys from the back of the group because he was setting a really good pace until the last steep 3.5 kilometers."

"From there, I just had to manage the stronger guys. I knew not to go from too far out because I saw the other day, when I was third, that it was hard to go early. So, I followed the other guys and in the end, I made my final attack maybe a little too early as Woods came back and then attacked me. I had to leave a little gap in the final and then I went all out for the sprint and I came really close but unfortunately just not close enough."

Alessandro De Marchi:
"Today was the perfect day for the breakaway. The group was quite big and it looked like it could be difficult to stay together so, I was surprised when we arrived at the bottom of the last climb practically all together. For sure, a steep climb like this was more suited to Dylan so, we decided to make a good pace from the bottom to the start of the steepest section. It was really all about the legs from there and I think Dylan played his cards really well but there was just one stronger guy out there today."

"We did our best and I was quite happy because after doing my job for Dylan, I was also able to do a good final climb. It's a good feeling to have been able to do that and I am maybe more happy about that than my personal result on the stage."

And here's the update Vuelta GC leader Simon Yates' Mitchelton-Scott team sent me:

Stage 14 winner Simon Yates has successfully defended the overall lead on a dangerous stage 17 at the Vuelta a Espana thanks to a strong effort from his Mitchelton-SCOTT outfit.

As Michael Woods (Education First – Drapac) won the stage from the breakaway ahead, Yates sacrificed eight seconds to Alejandro Valverde (Movistar Team) and Enris Mas (Quickstep Floors) in the sprint to the line but gained time on his other major rivals.

Aware of the danger ahead, Mitchelton-SCOTT were on high alert at the start of stage 17 and prepared for a big fight to control the riders who made the break. Unsurprisingly, it was the target for a lot of teams and 21 riders eventually rode off the front before being joined by five more. The group of 26 rode out to an advantage of over seven minutes as Alex Edmondson, Luka Mezgec and Matteo Trentin shouldered a lot of the work at the front of the peloton for Mitchelton-SCOTT.

Euskadi – Murias were keen to show their colours on their home roads before Astana Pro Team took over for the two climbs before the tough final ascent. The injection of pace shrunk the gap but it never threatened the break’s chances of stage honours, eventually won by Woods.

Going early from the bottom of the climb, Valverde was the first of the favourites to attack but with three riders still in the group, Mitchelton-SCOTT closed the move down thanks to Jack Haig. Shortly after, Adam Yates moved to the front of the group, with brother Simon in tow, setting a pace that dropped a number of contenders and nullified any serious attacks until the final sprint to the line.

Whilst Valverde and Mas gained eight seconds, others relinquished time. Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana Pro Team) lost just two seconds, but Steven Kruijswijk (Team LottoNL-Jumbo) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar Team) conceeded 56seconds apiece.

Simon Yates

Simon Yates headed for the finish

Simon Yates:
“We employed our secret weapon in Adam over the last kilometres, that’s why we’ve been saving him for this final section of the race and Jack was around the mark also. The whole team were there today, and they did a fantastic job.”

“I lost a few seconds in the sprint there in the end, it's no shame to lose a few seconds to Valverde in a sprint and I put time into a few other people so all in all it was a good day. We expect aggressive, attacking racing from Valverde and Movistar – I don’t think he knows any other way to ride and he has a very strong team around him.

"Of all the stages left I was most afraid of this one but there’s still a lot of hard racing to come. Tomorrow should be a sprint day and we can hopefully take it a bit easier, although you never know, and then we have Andorra. I think those stages will suit me better than today, but we’ll see.”

Lotto-Soudal's Thomas de Gendt took over the KOM jersey. His team sent me this report:

Thomas De Gendt has taken over the lead in the KOM classification at La Vuelta. He was part of a breakaway of 26 riders in the seventeenth stage from Getxo to Balcón de Bizkaia. The Lotto Soudal rider arrived first at the top of five climbs, only at the final climb he didn’t take any points. De Gendt collected seventeen points and now has a total of 74 points. De Gendt has ten points more than Luis Ángel Maté, who led the classification until today. Bauke Mollema is third in the ranking, with fourteen points less than De Gendt. De Gendt got 34th on today’s stage, at 5’26” of stage winner Michael Woods.

Thomas De Gendt: “Mission accomplished today and I am very happy with that. At the start of the stage I remained at the back of the bunch to make sure I wouldn’t waste any energy by joining any moves on the first flat kilometres. As we were approaching the top of the first climb, I moved up towards the front of the pack. I crossed the top first and soon after the break was established. There were many strong riders in our group and I knew this was the break of the day. We immediately cooperated well and from then on it was my goal to get first to the top of the next climbs, that’s why I tried to save some energy at first.”

Thomas de Gendt

Thomas de Gendt in 2018 Vuelta stage five

“Two of Maté’s teammates were part of the front group and I expected they would try to make it difficult for me. I wanted to discourage them by sprinting at the end of the second climb and it worked. I knew that the steep last kilometres of the last climb would be too tough for me. I followed as long as I could, but still got dropped before the steepest part. I had already done a lot of pulling on the previous climbs, so my companions wouldn’t want to attack.”

“Now it’s all about defending my jersey on Saturday. That will be the most important day in the battle for the KOM jersey. I now have some advantage over my opponents and that’s always good of course. I think Mollema and King (4th with 56 points, LTS) will be my most dangerous opponents. Maté, who’s now second in the KOM classification, has been ill for a few days now. Maybe he can recover the next two days and take part in the battle on Saturday. It would be great if the four of us would all be in the break and we have to sprint for the points on each climb.”

Rafal Majka's Bora-hansgrohe team sent this Vuelta stage 17 report:

Back on the road after the Individual Time Trial, it was another hilly day at the Vuelta a España as the race headed deep into the Basque Country. In spite of a damp and misty finale, the enthusiasm of the fans kept the riders motivated, especially on the summit finish, where Rafał Majka came so close to challenging for the win after a day spent riding in the break. As one of only a handful of the twenty-one strong break to last to the end, Rafał fought hard with his rivals, taking fourth. With the finish line barely visible due to the fog, Emanuel Buchmann crossed the line a few minutes after his teammate, having suffered along with his GC rivals on the day’s last climb, his efforts keeping hold of his eleventh position in the overall.

Rafal Majka

Rafal Majka climbing in Vuelta stage thirteen

The Stage
Starting with a circuitous route that took in the first of six categorised climbs, it was back to the more demanding and undulating terrain after the fairly flat Individual Time Trial of yesterday’s stage. The first two climbs would be covered after 85km of this 157km parcours, but it was the final four that would reveal who was in good form, all falling in the final 40km of the day. Individually, these wouldn’t cause the peloton a great deal of trouble, but collectively and in quick succession, it would be a ferocious finale, where riders would have to end the day on the summit of the first category Alto del Balcón de Bizkaia. Starting at a gentle 3% gradient, riders might be lulled into a false sense of security, before the road became progressively steeper, ultimately hitting an unimaginable 23.83%. Followed by a slightly less steep section, at just 7.64%, this might be the point riders would attack and become where the stage came to life.

The Team Tactics
The tough summit finish was one that would suit Rafał Majka, and so the Polish rider would either get in the break early on or, if this wasn’t possible, would watch how the day unfolded and try to get in the decisive move if the opportunity came up towards the end of the stage. The rest of the team would focus on supporting Emanuel Buchmann over the day’s challenging terrain. All of the riders in the GC race would be suffering today, and it would be important for the team to protect Emanuel and keep pace with the other riders in the overall contest.

The Race
Skirting the northern Spanish coast, the temperature and landscape had changed dramatically since the start of the Vuelta. Where there were cloudless skies, oppressive heat and desert-like terrain, there was now cool air and lush forest. In the much less punishing conditions, the riders were clearly more motivated and were pushing from the drop of the flag to get in the break. Every time an attack was pulled back, another one went, but nothing stuck until the descent of the first climb. Twenty-one riders were in this sizeable group, and in amongst them were the Austrian National Champion, Lukas Pöstlberger, and Rafał Majka. This group would be aiming to build a strong advantage before the day’s chaotic and punishing finale, first hitting four minutes and then more than eight minutes at 60km to go. It was at this point the peloton put their foot down and started working to reduce the gap to the front, the advantage falling steadily, but it didn’t look as though the bunch would be able to make the catch, as the break hit the foot of the final climb with more than three minutes in hand.

As the road ramped up, the break splintered, but the stronger climbers struck out on their own, Rafał out of the saddle on the painful 23% gradient, but looking solid on the demanding climb. Lukas dropped back to ride in support of Emanuel Buchmann, a select group of GC riders going ahead of him as the cloud descended on this stage, cooling the riders’ legs. An attack off the front of Rafał’s group in the final 1,500m saw him drop back, but rather than go into the red responding, the Polish rider kept his own pace, and while he was able to bridge back to the front, a second attack saw him distanced again. Shrouded in cloud, this cruel climb put the hurt into every single one of the riders as Rafał crossed the line in fourth. On a climb that seemed so much harder than its first category classification, Emanuel Buchmann found the going tough, a sentiment shared by many of the GC riders, but kept hold of eleventh on the overall standings.

From the Finish Line
"We had another tough start to the stage with a climb right after the drop of the flag. Thanks to a strong effort, Lukas and Rafał made it into a big and strong break. We had planned to have Rafał in the break, so this worked out, and the rest of the guys in the bunch helped and protected Emu. He felt well and held on to 11th in the GC. There are some tough stages left and we'll keep fighting. Rafał took fourth, three riders were faster in the finale but I think he showed a fighting spirit." – Steffen Radochla, Sports Director

"Today wasn't my day. I tried it, I gave it my all but after spending several stages in the breakaway in this Vuelta, my legs aren't fresh. Maybe it was due to the rest day and the time-trial but I didn't feel too well today. However, I gave it a try, I took my chances and I finished so close to the podium in this brutal stage." – Rafał Majka

"This stage and, in particular, the final climb, was just too hard. The fog made it even more difficult. On top of that, the breakaway group had a big advantage and we had to pull hard to come close to them. That effort and the brutal ascent to Balcón de Bizkaia made it tricky to follow the leaders." – Emanuel Buchmann

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