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Vuelta a Espana

Boswell’s first-hand account of how Sky (maybe) lost the Vuelta

Sky's Ian Boswell explains what happened in the Vuelta's decisive stage 15, when Chris Froome lost big time in the overall, and 80 riders missed time cut.

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DENIA, Spain (VN) — Ian Boswell had a front-row seat to the “Ambush at Formigal” last Sunday at the Vuelta a España. Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador turned the Vuelta upside-down with a long-range attack early in the short and explosive climbing stage to Formigal. Boswell’s Sky leader Chris Froome all but lost his shot for overall victory that day.

Boswell said the unfolding attacks coupled with the heat, collective weariness, and intensity of the surprise attack created a “perfect storm” that delivered the race-breaking attack.

[related title=”More Vuelta news” align=”right” tag=”Vuelta-a-Espana”]

And Boswell also had a front-row seat to the day’s other unfolding drama as more than half of the Vuelta peloton finished outside the day’s time cut, only to be granted clemency by the race jury in a controversial decision.

VeloNews spoke with Boswell to get his first-hand impressions of the day’s drama:

VeloNews: Ian, you were right there, so what happened on Sunday when Quintana and Contador rode away?
Ian Boswell: I am not really sure. … We warmed up on the trainers, and we were ready to roll. I was on the start line behind Contador, right on the front row. Personally, I drifted back a little bit, and I saw Tinkoff at the front. I wasn’t sure what they were going to do. We got over that first climb, before you knew it, there was a group with not only just Contador but also with Quintana. When we got over that hill into the flat, we had three riders in the second group, and five riders in the third group. We were chasing full gas in the third group, and the gap just kept going up.

[pullquote align=”right”]”In a grand tour things can change so quickly. If you let your guard down 10 minutes into the race, there are 15 riders up the road.”[/pullquote]

VN: Was there a sense of panic in the chasing group?
IB: It became very apparent that we were not going to catch that first group, when you have the best riders in the race riding with teammates. In hindsight, should we have regrouped [second and third groups], and then we would have had [Orica] and us? Well, maybe. Do you really give up another 30-45 seconds to Contador and Quintana at that point? Maybe not.

VN: Did you sense something was up before the start of the stage?
IB: To be honest, it just happened so quick. We had just done 14 days of racing, and the day before was just an epic day, we were toe to toe with Quintana and Froome, and then just 8km into the race, everything changed. We kept getting time checks about what was happening in the front, and to hear that gap was hovering around two minutes was crazy. It just goes to show in a grand tour that things can change so quickly. If you let your guard down 10 minutes into the race, there are 15 riders up the road.

[pullquote align=”left”]”It was a perfect storm”[/pullquote]

VN: Is the team blaming themselves for letting Quintana ride away?
IB: It’s no one’s fault individually, but collectively, it’s everyone’s fault. As teammates, we should have been there. Froome maybe should have followed Quintana. As group, maybe we should have come together. You can’t put your finger on it; it is not just one particular incident. It was a perfect storm. Had it just been Contador in the front group, it would have been different, but because Quintana was there with teammates, it made for a very different situation.

Photo: Jim Fryer / BrakeThrough Media | brakethroughmedia.com
Photo: Jim Fryer / BrakeThrough Media | brakethroughmedia.com

VN: The other big story that day was the big group of 91 riders who missed the time cut. You were in that group; can you describe what was happening?
IB: I have never been in anything like that before. We had three riders on the front, riding full-gas to try to catch Froome’s group, and we stopped riding. We didn’t talk to anyone. There was a collective feeling that it was better that everyone stay together. At that point, there were some riders who were on their hands and knees. They were just cooked. They didn’t want to ride full-speed. I was talking to Koen de Kort, who probably spends a lot of time in the gruppetto in the mountain stages, and he just said to me that we should stay together. As soon as we saw the gap was three minutes, we knew we were not going to make the time cut. OK, we could have 10 guys who could have gone, but do I want to put my teammates out the back, and the other riders? This race has physically cracked 80 of the world’s best cyclists. It’s been hard racing. The day before was so hard. For the bigger guys, to ride those four cols over the Pyrenees was a massive day. I think there were a lot of people who were tired.

[pullquote align=”right”]”I had a real hard time falling asleep. I had the whole stage running through my head. How could we have done it differently? What could we have done differently?”[/pullquote]

VN: What was going through your mind when you gave up the chase?
IB: It was a strange situation. As a team, we were distraught about what was happening up the road. We felt hopeless in that group, and you know you’re not going to come back to the front.

VN: What do you think about Froome’s comment that the big group should have been out of the race?
IB: I know Froomey said we should be out of the race, but the commissaires made their decision. People are saying it’s not fair because the top-15 the next day were all from the gruppetto. It’s not like we got a free pass. We didn’t stop at the bottom, and rode to the bus. We still had to ride the whole stage.

VN: Was there a sense of anyone riding hard in the group to make the time cut?
IB: OK, we didn’t ride it hard, but as a group, did we show an effort to make the time cut? Not really, but to be honest, as a group, was there a mood that we are tired, so for the greater good of us as professionals, let’s come together and stick together to get through this? Yes. We’ve seen that in two occasions, and in that stage when we came in 30 minutes behind, people are saying we were not professionals, but we are not animals, either. In both of those situations, I felt like those were the few times in the sport when we have come together. There is a lot less respect among the riders, but on those two occasions, we came together and said, ‘OK, we are all feeling the same way, so let’s respect each other.’ Maybe the fans or sponsors or media were mad, but I felt like as a peloton we came together. We were cooked. The days before, they were so hard. There wasn’t a big discussion in the group or guys talking, ‘OK, let’s go easy and come in a big group, and we’ll be safe.’ There wasn’t a director telling us to ride easy. There was a mood.

VN: What was the atmosphere like inside the Sky bus after Formigal?
IB: We were disappointed. It was a pretty quiet bus ride home. We didn’t get chewed out, as if it were an American football team. The most positive person was [David] Brailsford. He said, ‘OK guys, we made a mistake. We all know what happened. Let’s not get down. We still have five, six days of racing left to go. Let’s go down fighting.’ We made a mistake. You can bow your head, or you can keep on fighting. As a team, it is a reminder that each day you have to be switched on. Myself personally, I was very disappointed. That night, I had a real hard time falling asleep. I had the whole stage running through my head. How could we have done it differently? What could we have done differently?

[pullquote align=”right”]”We were disappointed. It was a pretty quiet bus ride home.”[/pullquote]

VN: Is the team holding out that Froome can still off the miracle comeback?
IB: Dave said our chance of winning is decreased, but it not impossible. We still have a lot of racing to go. There is some hard racing ahead of us. Movistar has been a very strong team, and credit to them. They have been riding collectively very well. That doesn’t mean we are satisfied with second. Even on that stage on Sunday — Froomey just won the Tour and he won a bronze medal — and he could have sat up, and said it’s over. The guy has so much fight in him. To see him keep fighting for that 110km by himself, that is a testament to his motivation and his desire to try to win the race. He is so competitive, and he just wants to win.