Road

Craddock emergent at punishing Pais Vasco

The Vuelta al País Vasco has been cold, wet, and relentlessly vertical. But Lawson Craddock has a relentless streak, too. Following Friday’s mountainous penultimate stage, Cannondale’s Craddock, 24, sits in seventh overall, 22 seconds behind Nairo Quintana (Movistar), 54 seconds behind Alberto Contador (Tinkoff), and a minute behind leader Sergio…

The Vuelta al País Vasco has been cold, wet, and relentlessly vertical. But Lawson Craddock has a relentless streak, too.

Following Friday’s mountainous penultimate stage, Cannondale’s Craddock, 24, sits in seventh overall, 22 seconds behind Nairo Quintana (Movistar), 54 seconds behind Alberto Contador (Tinkoff), and a minute behind leader Sergio Henao (Sky). He’s worked his way up the overall and into the lead of the young riders’ classification through consistent riding, finishing each day with the leaders.

He stuck with a select group of favorites on Friday, crossing the line just behind Quintana as nearly 20 percent of the field dropped out due to cold and crashes. A single 16km time trial sits between Craddock and a top-10 in one of the most difficult one-week races in cycling.

“I think today was the best that I’ve felt all week,” Craddock said of Friday’s stage. “When the favorites started attacking it was just full gas to the top for me. I had a lot of power still left in my legs, and I was able to pick guys off one by one. I’m really happy with how I finished today, but the second I crossed the finish line I started to focus on tomorrow’s TT. This race is far from over, and I plan to finish it off strong.”

For Cannondale team CEO Jonathan Vaughters, the results this week merely established what he says he already knew.

“He’s always had the talent and the quality to do it. That’s never been in question,” Vaughters said after Friday’s stage. “This year he’s been serious and dedicated to his training. … He’s been riding into form, kept himself healthy. And has built race by race.

“The significance of the ride he did [on Friday] — and it may be lost on people, who knows — is that if you can finish top 10 in the Tour of Basque Country, then you can finish top 10 in grand tour. It’s just tough. I wouldn’t say that about another week-long stage race.”

According to Craddock, this winter was his first consistent off-season since turning pro. The results now speak for themselves.

Indeed, País Vasco is a confirmation of Craddock’s talent. He was phenomenal as a junior and U23 rider, and has shone brief glimmers of world-beating form since turning pro — third at the Tour of California was the most notable. The young Texan’s previous two years with Giant – Alpecin were marred first by the difficulties of European transition and then, in early 2015, a bad crash at the Tour Down Under that derailed his spring campaign. He has not, until this week, lived up to his potential in the European theater.

“For me, it’s been a long time coming to be competitive in the WorldTour, and I’m just glad that everything is coming together,” Craddock said. “I still have a lot of work to do because at the end of my career I won’t be satisfied with top 10s.”

Craddock came to the Basque Country as team leader, aided by climbers Pierre Rolland and Mike Woods.

“It’s been incredible to be a part of such a great group of guys all week that have laid it all on the line for a common goal,” he said. “When we hit the final climb I was just doing my best to repay my teammates for the effort they had put in all week. I knew that if I just rode within my limits that I could have a strong result for us.”

The young American will now look toward Saturday’s time trial, a 16.5km test that could see him move further up the overall with a good ride. To do so, he’ll have to overhaul some of the biggest names in stage racing — Quintana, Rodriguez, Pinot, for instance.

“The only thing I can control tomorrow is my own effort, so that is what I am putting the most focus on,” Craddock said. “I have been feeling better each day, and tomorrow is a day where I hope to have my best legs. This race is notorious for being one of the hardest races on the calendar, so being in the position I am is very encouraging for my future. I’m looking forward to giving my all tomorrow, and finishing off this race strongly.”