CUMBRE DEL SOL, Spain (VN) — Stunned Cannondale-Drapac riders put pedal to the metal Sunday in all bid to win, and soothe their frazzled nerves.
With Cannondale-Drapac’s future on the ropes, the Vuelta a España squad grabbed Sunday’s Cumbre del Sol summit finale by the scruff of the neck. Michael Woods delivered with a grand-tour best third in stage 9.
“We had bad news yesterday,” Michael Woods told VeloNews. “On the team bus today, we decided to take the bull by the horns.”
The team’s riders and staff were dismayed over the weekend as word quietly spread, and then later officially confirmed overnight. Team boss Jonathan Vaughters said the team has to come up with a $7 million budget shortfall to shore up the budget for 2018. The alternative? The team could collapse.
Astounded Cannondale-Drapac riders huddled inside the team bus Sunday morning. Sport director Juanma Garate laid it out for the riders.
“Our director said we can do this one of two ways,” said Joe Dombrowski. “It can be every man for himself, or we can work as a team, and try and give everyone an opportunity. That is what you saw today. Obviously, we are all a bit on edge, but today revealed a lot about the character of this team.”
Racing hard is the best tonic for the nine riders at the Vuelta. The team knew they had a good chance to win the stage with Woods, who continues to impress on the early summit finales so far in the race.
The team made their intentions known early by massing at the front with green jerseys to assure that the day’s main breakaway didn’t have a chance to win the stage. Dombrowski and Simon Clarke later took hard pulls to set up Woods for the very steep 5km finale.
Woods, who admitted he attacked too early Saturday, played the patient hand on the grinding summit. Only a superior Chris Froome (Sky) and Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott) beat him to the line for what was his best-ever grand tour result.
“Coming into the climb, I felt really good and I thought I had a really good shot of winning. I gave it my best shot for the guys,” Woods said. “We are going to stay focused on the Vuelta. The team is still not folding yet. We still have a bike race, and want to win stages. We haven’t won one yet. We’ve got 12 more stabs at it.”
Woods’ attitude reflects the mood inside the team bus. The riders know they cannot control what is happening inside the boardrooms, but they can help themselves by racing hard.
Management officially released riders from their contracts, meaning they are free to search out new rides if and where they can find one. Riders say they are hoping the team can pull off a late-hour miracle.
Things will quickly get tense. By the Vuelta a España, many teams have already rounded out their squads for the approaching season. Finding spots for everyone won’t be easy. Riders might start racing for themselves in a desperate jab at securing their respective futures. Sport directors will do what they can to keep the team focused on winning a stage and racing as a unit.
Cannondale-Drapac sport director Tom Southam said the best thing a bike racer can do to help themselves is to remain professional.
“It’s trying times, but the guys want to race,” Southam said. “The best thing they can do is go fast. That’s what bike racers do. That’s their craft, that’s what they’re good at. Going slow is not going help. Falling apart or collapsing as a team is not going to help you. No one is hiding anything, and we are doing our best to get on with it.”
Monday’s first rest day comes at a good time. Riders will have a chance to catch up with developments, speak with their agents, and plot their next moves.
Riders will be nervously watching developments over the next few days and weeks. Vaughters is still holding out hope he can save the team, and even reached out with a crowd-funding proposal.
Dombrowski has his own plans.
“I’ve requested a taco night,” Dombrowski said. “So we are going to have tacos al pastor and I might even have a cerveza along with it.”