One month after the Ézaro time trial of this year’s Vuelta a España, Will Barta still has one nagging thought at the back of his mind.
Where could he have gone one second faster?
However, that irksome tic is nothing compared to the positive vibes that flood the 24-year-old’s mind when he thinks back to that 13th stage of this autumn’s race.
Barta had started the 34-kilometer test out of contract and running out of options. He went on to uncork a 46 minute, 40-second ride that could have been enough to secure his future at the top of pro cycling.
“It was sort of going through my mind that I was racing for my career at that TT,” Barta told VeloNews. “Not just that I was racing for my career, but I was thinking ‘OK if it [my career] doesn’t continue, this is my chance to get the best result in any stage or anything in cycling.”
Sure enough, Barta took his best-ever result, second-place.
Although the young American may have lost out by one second to Primož Roglič that day, Barta was the true winner: his breakout ride unlocked the final door to a contract with his dream team, EF Pro Cycling.
Earlier in the season, Barta and his CCC teammates had learned that the squad was in financial difficulties as its title sponsor struggled under the financial fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was only after months of uncertainty that Circus-Wanty Gobert bought out the WorldTour license.
However, there was almost no space for the existing CCC Team roster on the Belgian-backed outfit, including Barta.
Heading into the Vuelta, Barta feared that his brief two-year tenure in the WorldTour was coming to a close.
“Even by the beginning of the Vuelta I had no certain deal for 2021 – all the teams I’d approached were still unsure,” he said. “Every team was still saying they weren’t certain yet, and the list of teams that had initially said ‘maybe’ had gone down. To be honest, the TT at the Vuelta was what really got it over the edge for me.”
In days following the Ézaro stage, a contract with EF Pro Cycling landed in Barta’s inbox.
It was a deal that was the product of an anxious three months of waiting and hoping.
As soon as CCC Team president Jim Ochowicz had confirmed the squad was in difficulty, Barta’s agent worked the phones hunting down openings. However, with riders flooding the market as both CCC Team and NTT Pro Cycling’s futures looked in doubt, buyers had the luxury of choice as supply outstripped demand. Barta was left with a long list of “maybes.”
EF Pro Cycling was top of Barta’s wishlist for 2021. The American based squad ticked all the boxes, and they reciprocated the interest. Yet like so many other teams back in summer, they weren’t able to commit so early.
“Ever since I turned pro I really thought that EF seemed like a super team to be on,” Barta said. “Even when it started to look pretty uncertain with CCC, I think EF was one of the top teams I was wanting to go to”
Between August and the start of the Vuelta mid-October, Barta’s list of initial “maybes” had thinned down dramatically as teams shut their books.
“When the Vuelta started there was maybe three possibilities left, but after the TT I think it opened up some doors that could maybe work. But it was one of those things where it might take some time to see if something would happen,” Barta explained.
“Within a few days of that TT, EF sent me something too. I was super-excited to go to them so I didn’t explore the other offers much because I think EF is such a good team for me.”
Within weeks of the Vuelta rolling to a close in Madrid, EF Pro Cycling had confirmed their new signing, booking Barta a further year in the WorldTour.
In the hours after the Vuelta’s time trial, Barta spoke of his intense disappointment at such a narrow second place. When on the telephone to VeloNews one month later, Barta’s irritation was more than balanced by a one-year deal that would see him link up with his former Hagens Berman Axeon teammates and ride alongside U.S. veterans that he had long looked up to.
“I’m still disappointed – to win a grand tour stage is something everybody dreams of and so to just miss it by one second is hard. But for sure, I’m pleased with it.” Barta said this week. “And who knows – that performance may have really helped save my spot in the WorldTour.”
No U.S. safety net
Barta’s cycling career would have been far from over had the EF deal not come together. However, the budding stage racer was concerned that his time in the top-tier may have come to a close.
Handfuls of riders have recently foregone a place in the WorldTour to ride at Continental or Pro Continental level in 2021 as team budgets squeeze and the shakeups at CCC Team and NTT Pro Cycling take their toll. But Barta was concerned that as an American, a move to a second-division would squad not have been so straightforward given his long-view of racing in the top flight of cycling.
“When I started the Vuelta, I really was starting to feel that maybe this is my one shot at a grand tour to be honest,” he said. “It’s easier to find a deal in a European continental team if you’ve raced at the WorldTour level but even so, most of the conti and pro conti teams really look after the riders from their own nation so I couldn’t be sure.”
So why not head home to race with a U.S. outfit?
“There’s not that much racing in the U.S. now, so I was really kind of afraid if I joined a U.S. continental team it would be really hard to come back to the WorldTour,” Barta explained. “This year with COVID especially, there really was no racing in the U.S. And with things being pretty unknown for next year I thought there’s a good possibility there won’t be much racing in the U.S. also next year.”
Barta’s one North American option was Rally Cycling. Fellow CCC-Team rider Joey Rosskopf signed for the Minneapolis-based squad this fall, and Ben King is also set to join them in 2021 having left NTT Pro Cycling.
Alas, when Barta came calling, the squad was already full.
“Before the Vuelta, for sure I was getting quite worried about what I was going to do,” he said. “I was also looking at what I would go back to school with and all of that, to be honest.”
One carefully reconned TT, one perfectly executed bike change, and one perfectly paced ride later, Barta will swap the school books for the road books for another year.
Nonetheless, it’s likely that one-second loss could forever itch at the back of Barta’s mind. But that narrow defeat earned him the opportunity to race for many more stage wins through the year to come.
“I mean one second, you can find that when you look back on so many spots in the course,” Barta said. “For sure I’m disappointed but I’m still more proud of the performance, and also I’m excited about where it shows I have the possibility to end up as a cyclist.”