ARES DEL MAESTRAT, Spain (VN) — All eyes were on the finishing straight. On a costly afternoon that saw Rigoberto Urán and Hugh Carthy crash out midway through the stage, EF Education First team staffers were anxiously craning their necks to see if they were going to lose one more.
One by one the riders in pink trickled across the line. First through were Dani Martínez and Sergio Higuita in the main GC group. Next came road captain Mitch Docker and Lawson Craddock. Grand tour rookie Logan Owen rode in with the final group, cut and bloodied. Finally there was a flicker of pink as Tejay van Garderen pedaled across the line.
Van Garderen had crashed out of the day’s winning breakaway on a fast and swooping right-hand turn. After the impact, television cameras showed him lying in a pile of rocks alongside the road. The American survived to finish last, 24:45 behind the winner.
“It was a rough day for us,” Craddock said at the line. “Personally I wasn’t involved, but we had about half the team go down. Murphy [Murphy’s Law] showed up with a vengeance.”
That’s one way to put it.
On a fast and hilly stage across Spain’s southern plateau country, EF-Education First suffered one of its toughest days in franchise history.
Urán and Carthy both crashed so hard in a mid-stage pileup they were transported by ambulance to a local hospital, with early diagnosis of snapped clavicles. Higuita and Owen also fell heavily, but were able to continue.
Just like that, the team’s entire Vuelta plan changed in an instant.
“We came ripping on this downhill, and we hit a turn that was tighter than expected, with a bit of water on the road, and guys just slid out,” Craddock said. “It was a rough moment for that to happen because guys were going pretty fast.”
Just when things were looking bleak, a bright spot remained with van Garderen, who had rode safely into the day’s winning breakaway. But just as the final moves were about to unfold, van Garderen appeared to over-cook a sweeping right-hander as he was at the nose of the leading group. He fell heavily into a rocky ditch and brush alongside the road. Van Garderen stayed there as the peloton rode past as he was checked over by medical staff.
At least he made it to the line. It’s uncertain if he will be able to continue.
“It was a hard day for the team,” Higuita said. “We lost our captain and we heard about the crash of Tejay. We have to keep fighting.”
It was unclear what provoked the crash that proved so costly for EF. Riders at the finish line described a fast descent and a corner that closed suddenly, causing riders to brake to try to control their speed.
“It was human error, caused by a rider from Jumbo-Visma, who got scared in the corner, braked suddenly, and we hit him from behind, causing a big pileup,” Higuita said. “We crashed as well, and it really cost us a lot.”
Owen, riding in his first grand tour, expressed relief that he made it to the finish line to race another day. The high-speed fall saw several more riders crash, including former leader Nicholas Roche (Sunweb) and Victor de la Parte (CCC Team), who also abandoned.
“People didn’t realize the corner came back on itself and we were going really fast,” Owen said. “We were really lucky that people were not more seriously hurt because there was a rock sidewall and a ditch.”
Even before riders made it to the line, the team quickly digested the terrible news and already started to make mental adjustments. It’s unclear of the extent of van Garderen’s injuries, but the others vowed to keep pushing on.
“We lost Rigo and Hugh for sure, which is a bummer. We will regroup tonight,” Craddock said. “It’s a long race. I think there is still a lot fight within those of us who are still racing. Once we got word that Rigo was out, you can be disappointed, but we tried to flip it around very quickly. That’s a testament to the leadership of Juanma [Garate], our director, and Mitch Docker, our road captain.”
Instead of racing to win the Vuelta with Urán, EF’s survivors of Thursday will change the script. Riders at the line were already talking about an alternative ending for this Vuelta.
“We have to defend the colors of the team in the best way possible,” Higuita said. “Now we can think about trying to win a stage.”