Following the runner-up performance by Rigoberto Urán at the 2017 Tour de France, EF Education First-Drapac are cranking up the dream machine in the hope of lifting the gregarious Colombian to the French Grand Tour's top step this year when the race ends in Paris on July 29.
It seems like a staggeringly tall order to get past Chris Froome and the juggernaut Team Sky have created over the last half decade at cycling's biggest race, but the underdog team run by American Jonathan Vaughters have convinced themselves they're up to the challenge.
Vaughters and team director Charly Wegelius have put together a diverse roster of experienced hands and enthusiastic newcomers to try to make Urán's Tour de France dream come true. There are no plan Bs for July at EF Education First-Drapac; they're all in for Urán and his GC ambitions. It's Champagne in Paris or bust.
At 31, Urán's own Grand Tour ambitions are back on the rise after several years of heading in the wrong direction, and so far this year the Colombian appears to be on the trajectory of finding fine form for July. A stage win in February at his home race Oro Y Paz, followed by solid days through Tirreno-Adriatico and the Ardennes Classics, set him up for this month's Tour de Slovenie, where he bagged second overall and a stage win to test his legs.
Of his seven support riders, only Tom Scully started the Giro d'Italia, but the 27-year-old Kiwi quit before stage 14 and has had plenty of time to regather his form ahead of the upcoming three-week test in July. The rest have been focused on July, first with the goal of making the roster, and now turning towards meeting the challenge and living up to Urán's high expectations.
Urán will bring a team that can hold its own on the stage 3 team time trial, and shepherd him confidently through the other opening-week challenges on the sprint days and when the peloton tackles some of Paris-Roubaix's cobblestones on stage 9.
EF Education-First-Drapac probably lack the numbers for the high mountains compared with perennial powerhouses like Team Sky and Movistar, but Urán navigated the challenge last year before the team came into the race with such a high focus. Pierre Rolland is a proven quantity on the climbs, while young Colombian Dani Martínez appears well prepared for his debut in the big show.
EF Education First-Drapac's Tour de France Squad
Name: Rigoberto Urán
Position: Team leader
Experience: 14 Grand Tours raced; runner-up in 2017 Tour de France
Urán has lived up to every possible expectation Vaughters could have envisioned when he signed the charismatic Colombian in 2016, and Urán's Grand Tour outlook was reinvigorated last year during his second year with the scrappy American team. The Colombian's exploits in the three-week races appeared to have peaked with his back-to-back runner-up results at the 2013 and 2014 Giros. Urán was 42nd in his previous Tour de France appearance in 2015 with Quick-Step, but a seventh at the 2016 Giro after his move to Vaughters' outfit signalled he was back on track.
The team have a new title sponsor on a multi-year deal and Urán is signed through 2020, so the stability is in place to back their superstar. Urán has said he's motivated to reward Vaughters' confidence, and he believes he can pluck cycling's most-tempting plum this time around.
Name: Simon Clarke
Experience: 10 Grand Tours, including three Tours de France
Like many journeyman riders, Clarke survives as much with his craftiness in the peloton as he does with his legs. The 31-year-old has a knack for reading the races: knowing where to be on the road and when to be there. He'll help guide Urán specifically, and the team in general, through the bunch on key stages as well as making the quick decisions about when to expend or conserve the team's resources.
"Simon has a great nose for moving a leader around a peloton, an instinct for finding the right position at the right time," said team director Charly Wegelius. "This is not easy to find in pro cycling and is of great value at a race like the Tour. You may not see it on TV, but his contribution is fundamental."
Clarke will be the guy wrangling the different personalities and ambitions into one cohesive unit, aimed at putting Urán on the top step at the end of the day. Working with Wegelius in the team car, EF Educations First-Drapac's road captain will delegate the team's resources for Urán like a good concierge.
Name: Lawson Craddock
Experience: Three Grand Tours, including the 2016 Tour de France
Craddock has bounced back from a lacklustre 2017 season and is back on the team's Tour roster after missing out last year. He was fourth in the time trial at the Tour of California in May, and the team expects him to contribute mightily during the Tour's stage 3 TTT. After that he'll help Urán in the medium mountains and transitional stages. Bonus points for Craddock if he can stick with the leaders deep into the mountain days.
"My role will be to help out Rigo to put him on the top step of the final podium in Paris," Craddock said. "He's a great leader that instills confidence in the people around him. Being a part of a team that has a legitimate chance to win the Tour de France is not an opportunity that comes around very often."
Name: Dani Martínez
Position: Mountain domestique
Experience: Two previous Grand Tour starts at the Giro d'Italia in 2016 and 2017
Martínez's podium performance at the Tour of California earlier this year behind Egan Bernal (Team Sky) and Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) must certainly have Vaughters anxiously awaiting a taste of what he can do in this year's Tour. Fifth in California on the summit stage to Gibraltar Road and then 10th in the time trial to secure his podium spot, the 22-year-old showed the skills to be a future contender at major stage races. His ascent to cycling's biggest stage could accelerate the process.
Martínez will be highly motivated to work for his countryman and team leader, but it will be interesting to see if race strategy or team dynamics allow him to be set loose to hunt for his own stage result.
"He is a smart, aware kid, who learns very quickly," Wegelius said. "This Tour will be another step in his learning experience, and he has all the tools to make an impact while he is learning."
Name: Taylor Phinney
Position: Domestique/time triallist
Experience: Four previous Grand Tours, including last year's Tour de France. Led the Giro d'Italia for three days in 2012
In the team's roster announcement, Phinney described his role as the 'chief vibration officer'.
"I have to keep the vibes up, make sure the frequencies are calibrated," he joked.
While a team does need a certain level of humour and perspective over the three weeks in July – and Phinney is definitely qualified for that – the former leader of the Giro d'Italia will also bring plenty of horsepower to Urán's stable for both the team time trial and the long, flat days. Phinney's eighth place in this year's Paris-Roubaix also bodes well for Urán's odds of surviving the cobbles on stage 9. Phinney managed just 14th at the Tour of California time trial and 33rd at the race against the clock at the Tour de Suisse, but riding for Urán on stage 3 could help light the fires in his time trial motors once more.
Name: Pierre Rolland
Position: Super domestique
Experience: Rolland, who has two Tour stage wins, will be starting his 10th Tour de France this year
Rolland moved to Vaughters' program in 2016 hoping to find some new momentum for his career, and it appears to have worked after an initial period of introduction. Rolland won a mountain stage at the 2017 Giro, and has been knocking on the door so far this year.
At the recent Critérium du Dauphiné, Rolland excelled in the mountainous final stages, eventually securing eighth overall on the final day in Saint Gervais-Mont Blanc. An on-form Rolland will be crucial to taking on the Team Sky armada the British team has built around Chris Froome, so the Frenchman's Dauphiné signals should help calm Vaughters' pre-race nerves.
Name: Tom Scully
Nationality: New Zealand
Experience: Started his second-ever Grand Tour in May at the Giro d'Italia; previously rode the Vuelta a Espana in 2017
After moving to Vaughters' team last year from the Drapac Pro Continental squad, Scully will be starting his first-ever Tour de France after breaking the Grand Tour barrier at the Giro earlier this year. He quit the Giro before stage 14 and returned to racing at the Tour de Slovenie last week, securing his spot on the team with consistency and reliability.
"Tom's reliability and racing skills have made him a must for big events in our team over the last 18 months. He takes everything in his stride, and never lets an occasion get the better of him. This is a much welcome asset in the stressed bubble of the Tour," said Vaughters.
Vaughters is looking for big contributions from Scully in the team time trial and on the cobbled sections, where he has practice positioning Sep Vanmarcke in the spring Classics.
Name: Sep Vanmarcke
Experience: Has ridden the Vuelta a Espana once in 2011 and the Tour de France four times, in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016
Vanmarcke's giant diesel motor will be invaluable to the team and Urán's overall chances, and in particular on the stage 9 adventure over some of Paris-Roubaix's feared cobblestones.
The stage from Arras Citadelle to Roubaix includes 22km of cobbles, divided into 15 sectors from 47.5km covered to 8km to go, and probably strikes more fear into the hearts of the GC contenders than any other day of the race. Having the big belgian on one's side, along with Paris-Roubaix eighth-place finisher Phinney, is a notable advantage.
"Sep is obviously on the team to help Rigo on the cobblestone stage," Vaughters said. "I don't think we could ask for a better rider to show Rigo how to ride the cobbles and to stay with him over the stones. We think this is going to be a great opportunity for us to gain time on our rivals."
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The 2018 Tour de France starts on July 9 and concludes on July 29 in Paris. Cyclingnews will have complete live coverage from the race, as well as race analysis, blogs, video highlights and podcasts from the team on the ground.