Tour de France

Uran racing with Tour target on his back

One year after finishing second, Rigoberto Urán is a legitimate contender to win the yellow jersey.

CHOLET, France (VN) — Can Rigoberto Urán keep his trademark cool this month with a target on his back?

“Rigo” prides himself on his professionalism and his cool-under-pressure panache. The 31-year-old Colombian might find it a little harder to ride under the radar this year. Hot off his second-place place finish in 2017, Urán starts Saturday as a legitimate Tour contender.

“If you’re going well, anything is possible,” Urán said. “We can say that the objective is to win the Tour, but for me, the most important thing is get through this Tour day by day and have good health. Things went great last year, but at the same time, I don’t like to get too excited about things too early. I like to be more realistic and take things as they came. Of course, to win the Tour is possible, and that’s why we’re here.” [related title=”More Tour de France news” align=”left” tag=”Tour-de-France”]

The EF Education First–Drapac captain delivered a stunning performance in last year’s Tour, winning stage 9 with a broken derailleur and battling Froome all the way to the end. A cagey and experienced professional, Urán knows when to turn up the volume and when to turn it down.

“There is always stress at the Tour,” he told journalists Thursday. “You have to learn to live with this and how to manage it. When you start to think too much about things or worry too much about the results, that’s what provokes the stress. Of course, the results are what’s important, but it’s better when you take things in a calm way, and then you’re at your maximum to perform when it really counts.”

His trademark laugh keeps things relaxed inside the EF Education First bus. Urán doesn’t operate on intimidation and fear. He wants everyone relaxed and loose. That’s the way he rolls, and now that he’s boss, he’s not going to pile on the pressure on everyone else.

“It’s never really that stressful around Rigo,” American Taylor Phinney said. “Sometimes at the dinner table he will just loudly say in his broken English, ‘No stress!’”

“There are stressful parts of the race you can’t avoid because you’re just in it and you deal with it,” Phinney added. “But there’s stuff around the race, before and after the race, where it doesn’t need to be stressful, in those environments he’s very good. He prefers to look forward but without putting pressure on himself and us. He understands the limit of his physical capabilities and tries to keep his mind at ease.”

Urán will be tested at this Tour, both on and off the bike. He’s come closer than any Colombian to beating Froome and EF Education First is putting the entire mass of its Tour squad at his service. If he can survive the challenging first half of the race, everything is there for Urán to make history as Colombia’s first Tour winner.

“It doesn’t affect me much. In fact, it gives me even more morale because I was close last year, and it gives you even more motivation to try to win,” Urán said of heightened expectations. “The public doesn’t really care which of us wins so long as it is a Colombian.”

The team brings a squad built around Urán. There’s brawn in Phinney, Sep Vanmarcke, and Thomas Scully for the flats and the team time trial. Daniel Martinez and Pierre Rolland will wait for the mountains, with Lawson Craddock and Simon Clarke ready to tow Urán onto the climbs.

Team manager Jonathan Vaughters couldn’t hide his enthusiasm that’s tempered with the reality that grand tour racing can go off the rails at any turn.

“You try to win the race. Possibly you have to adjust that 10 days in or whatever but as of right now, the idea is to try to win the race,” Vaughters said. “I think Rigo is a tiny little bit better than he was before the Tour last year, and I think the team is a tiny bit better that it was before the tour last year as well. The course is a tiny bit more suited to Rigo, generally, than it was last year’s as well. If you had that up he’s a shoe-in to win, right?

“No, we all know it doesn’t work that way,” Vaughters said, quickly answering his own question. “But you know it could. He could be second again. He could also put the ride of his life in and everything goes perfectly and end up 6th. That’s why they have the race.”

The all-in bet for Urán is a tactical shift for the team that typically brings a squad of merry pranksters looking for a spot in the sun, be it in breakaways, stage wins, or even a podium run. The franchise has come close to the Tour podium before (not counting Bradley Wiggins, who was bumped from fourth to third in 2009 following the disqualification of Lance Armstrong) but has never built its entire squad around one singular leader. Last year’s second overall — the smallest winning gap in Froome’s Tour history at 54 seconds — was the first Tour podium in the team’s history.

When asked if riders like Vanmarcke or Rolland will have freedom to hunt stages, the answer depends on how well Urán is going. If Urán is still in the frame, the team will remain committed to protecting his flanks.

Urán was trying to tamp down expectations without giving up before he starts.

“We’ll take on the Tour much like we did last year, and take it stage by stage,” he said. “I don’t like over-analyze the situation. Instead, I look to take it day by day and have the confidence in what we have.”

Urán could be laughing all the way to Paris if he can be the one to tip over the Froome cart.