The Cannondale-Garmin team has a rough Vuelta — crashes, illness — but its young riders soldier on and leave Spain with experience, fitness.

MILAN (VN) — Cannondale-Garmin survived the Vuelta a España after losing its leaders Dan Martin and Andrew Talansky. Americans Ben King and Alex Howes went on the attack, and Joe Dombrowski developed in his first grand tour.

The fighting spirit showed on the final mountain day Saturday when Dombrowski and Howes got in the break, and Italian Moreno Moser placed 10th.

Sport director Johnny Weltz leaned against his black and green team car on the Vuelta’s final day while trying to make sense of the three weeks that had passed. “We tried to avoid a self-destructive mode, with Talansky and Martin leaving,” he said. “I said, ‘Guys, we have to end this or we will eliminate ourselves.’ We had a serious talk and shifted the boat around. One thing was not crashing as much!”

Martin led Cannondale’s charge early when the race left the Costa del Sol in Spain’s south with a fourth behind Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge) in stage 2 and a second place, again behind Chaves, in stage 6. However, a crash in stage 8 led to a separated shoulder, and he went home early.

“Those were the highlights, the first days. We tried to build it up from there,” added Weltz. “I knew it was critical to get through Murcia, which we didn’t. The next day would’ve been a perfect finish for Dan [Martin], I believe strongly that he could’ve taken the stage and jersey.”

Such a day would have turned Cannondale’s grand tour around, similar to what happened in the Giro d’Italia when Davide Formolo won the La Spezia stage.

The crashes kept coming. King crashed and Howes, too. Howes escaped in stage 8, but fell into a barrier while descending. Luckily, he could continue through the third week and end the Vuelta in good form for the world championships.

A respiratory illness made its rounds and weakened the team as well. Both Howes, King, and Italian Davide Villella, 24, suffered from it. It forced Talansky out of the race at the end of the third week, ahead of the final weekend. Weltz was upset because he hoped Talansky would “step up” after Martin left.

“He never came back. I knew he was sick after the Tour de France. He didn’t race San Sebastián to recover, but he never came around and never got on top of it,” Weltz continued. “I had a talk with him. You come with the promise and talent, you win a big race, you make it up to a certain level, but the task is to stay there. That’s the challenge and that’s where you prove your worth.

“We talked about it before he left. He has to go home and reverse this situation, come back next year more solid. He’s kind of aware of it, but he needs to start fresh after the winter and after two grand tours this year. He’ll be more solid and can work from there. We can work on that.”

Weltz smiled with pride, however. Six of his nine men made it though, and he said they are stronger because of it.

“We said we are young, OK, but we have to try. It’s better to try and fail than to not to try,” he added.

“Dombrowski is what I hoped for. We divided the tour in pieces so it wouldn’t be too much at once. Joe confirmed it, we can expect a lot more from him. King made it in the main group in the last days. That was good. Ben crashed heavily early on too, and was beat up, but he recovered well.

“That’s what I mean, at some point, I said, ‘That’s enough!'”