Orica GreenEdge had an up-and-down day during the fourth stage of the Vuelta a España. The team finished the stage with much reason to celebrate following Michael Matthews' maiden Grand Tour podium finish. Those celebrations were quickly dampened when a post-race x-ray confirmed that Wesley Sulzberger had broken his collarbone and fractured his elbow and would be forced to withdraw from the race.
The talking point of the stage was the Mirador de Ezaro, a short but steep 1.8 kilometre climb that featured gradients nearing 30 percent. For GreenEdge the plan was to protect Matthews and Simon Gerrans heading into that climb. Matthews came away from the stage very pleased with how his teammates looked after him.
"The whole day was pretty stressful," explained Matthews. "There was a lot of wind, and the roads were really open. There wasn't much flat for the entire 190km. The team rode together well, and they did a great job keeping me and Gerro out of the wind. By the time we hit the bottom of the climb, I hadn't touched the wind or put in much of an effort to maintain my position. I'm really happy with how the boys looked after me."
The GreenEdge plan was thrown into disaray as the peloton began to tackle the only categorised climb of the day. Gerrans began to feel the after effects of his crash in stage 3, and Sulzberger went down landing heavily on his shoulder.
"I was in a good position before the start of the climb," said Sulzberger. "There were barriers at the start, and a BMC rider in front of me almost hit the barrier. He tail-whipped his bike and braked heavily to avoid crashing. I dodged the barrier and was about to hit the BMC rider. Instead, I braked to avoid riding into him and went up and over my handlebars. Leigh Howard stopped to help me get my bar straightened out, and we set off up the climb together."
Christian Meier and Simon Clarke remained with Matthews over the top of the KOM and Baden Cooke soon re-joined the front group.
"I got over the climb in the front group of around 30 riders," said Matthews. "It was hard but it wasn't quite as hard as they made it out to be. From there, another 40 or so riders caught us on the descent, and that was the group that contested the finish."
The trio positioned Matthews well heading into the finale and the 22-year-old from Canberra almost snatched the win.
"The boys put me in the perfect position to launch myself in the sprint," continued Matthews. "It's unfortunate that Moreno and Cancellara snuck away in the final kilometre, but I won the sprint for third. My sprinting legs are good and my climbing legs are good, too. We'll see in the next few days if we can go even better and get that stage win we're all aiming for together."
Following his crash Sulzberger carried on the finish, crossing the line second last in the gruppetto over 14 minutes down.
"I haven't broken anything before," explained Sulzberger. "It was painful, but I didn't want to give up if it wasn't broken. When I saw [the x-ray] I understood what had happened and that I wouldn't be starting tomorrow. I also have a very small fracture in my elbow."
"I'm extremely disappointed," Sulzberger continued. "I had so much to offer the team at this Vuelta, and it has been my season objective to arrive here in top form."