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EF Education First returns to TTT roots in Colombia

The U.S.-based team is victorious in Tuesday's team race against the clock, its first TTT win since 2016.

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When Jonathan Vaughters founded the Slipstream franchise more than a decade ago, a race like the Tour de France was a far-off dream. Instead, the team would pick off more accessible targets, such as breakaways, a few days in a leader’s jersey, or a team time trial.

The team, now EF Education First, has since evolved into a WorldTour staple, and racing for cycling’s biggest prizes is a realistic goal. In Tuesday’s emotional victory to open the Tour Colombia 2.1, however, the team took a page from its past and powered to its first team time trial victory since 2016.

“We’re so happy to have won,” said Rigoberto Urán, who took the leader’s jersey. “Cycling is so big in Colombia and to win a team time trial here is so motivating for the week ahead.”

Back in the early days of the team, when it was finding its feet in the international peloton, it made a name for itself in the highly disciplined race against the clock.

Vaughters’s “merry pranksters” took a stunning victory in the team time trial to open the 2008 Giro d’Italia, putting Christian Vande Velde into the pink jersey. It won other marquee TTTs at the 2011 Tour de France and the 2012 Giro, the same year Ryder Hesjedal went on to win the overall GC in Italy.

Since then, the team’s priorities have changed. It won two more TTTs along the way — at the 2012 Tour of Utah and the 2016 Czech Tour — but the emphasis is now largely centered on 2017 Tour runner-up Urán.

Vaughters, however, cited the team’s turbulent history of mergers over the middle part of the past decade for its rough patch in TTTs. He said the recent stability at the top with the arrival of new owner EF Education First is starting to pay dividends.

“The talent’s always been there,” Vaughters said on the team’s website. “It’s just a matter when you have years and years of doing a merger with one team and a merger with another, you’re never really building the team, you’re just treading water.”

Perhaps more than any other team in the WorldTour, Vaughters’s squads have undergone the most changes in sponsorship to keep the team afloat.

The team underwent three mergers with other outfits from 2011 to 2017. The first came with Cervélo in 2011, a second with Cannondale in 2015, and a third with Drapac in 2017.

Each of those deals came with backroom drama that inevitably impacted performances when rubber met the asphalt. The arrival of EF as a new title sponsor and owner at the end of 2017, which saved the team from collapse, has helped create new stability that Vaughters suggested is already paying off.

“With mergers you’ve got riders coming in from other teams, it’s not strategically built,” Vaughters said. “Little by little in the last 18 months, I’ve been given the opportunity to strategically build the team and we’re starting to see the fruit of that, it’ll keep getting better.”

For 2019, the team saw nine new arrivals, with Tejay van Garderen and Alberto Bettiol (BMC Racing), Tanel Kangert (Astana), Lachlan Morton (Dimension Data), and Moreno Hofland (Lotto-Soudal) among them.

The new-look EF Education First is already setting a winning tone, taking two stage victories at the Herald Sun Tour in Australia last month with Dan McLay and Michael Woods.

It was the team’s stalwarts who delivered Urán into the race leader’s jersey Wednesday in Medellín. Alex Howes, Taylor Phinney, Nate Brown, and Lawson Craddock, along with newly crowned Colombian TT champion Dani Martínez, helped propel Urán into pole position.

“As you can imagine a team time trial victory is the best victory that you can do in cycling,” said EF Education First sport director Juanma Garate. “Cycling is not an individual sport, even if sometimes it looks like that. To win a team time trial is the best thing because you all go on stage together. I’m proud and happy that this was the first race of the year for all of them to win. It’s not possible to start any better.”

The TTT will give Urán a head start on several key rivals, including defending champion Egan Bernal (Sky), who finished 10 seconds slower, and Nairo Quintana (Movistar), who was 44 seconds off the mark.

The team’s winning return to its TTT roots could pay even bigger dividends in July. Stage 2 of the Tour de France is a 28km team race against the clock on the streets of Brussels.