Rigoberto Uran will lead the EF Education First-Drapac team at the upcoming Tour de France set to begin in the Vendée region on July 7. The Colombian finished a remarkable second place behind Chris Froome (Team Sky) last year, and the team will return with a dream of winning the overall title.
"The objective is quite simple," said team CEO Jonathan Vaughters in a team press release. "We start the race trying to win the Tour de France.
"Is that optimistic and is that pushing the limits of our team? Absolutely. But we were second place last year. We have a little bit stronger team this year, and we have a parcours more suited to Rigo than last year. We have Rigo, who is stronger than he was last year. So we're going in with the idea of trying to win the race."
In last year's Tour, Uran won the ninth stage into Chambery, took second places in stage 12 to Peyragudes and stage 17 to Serre-Chevalier, where he moved into second overall. He dropped to third after finishing fifth on stage 18 on the summit of Izoard, but a strong time trial on stage 20 in Marseille moved him ahead of Romain Bardet (Ag2r), and back into second place ahead of the final parade into Paris.
The team acknowledged that Uran comes into the race, once again, as a dark horse and that it will be hard to top his performance last year. So far this year, Uran has won a stage and finished third overall at his nation's inaugural Oro y Paz. He went on to finish in the top 10 at Tirreno-Adriatico, pulled out of Pais Vasco, and had mediocre performances during the Ardennes Classics.
More recently, however, he won the mountain stage to Celje at the Tour de Slovenie and finished second overall behind Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo). The result showed that he is gaining some form, but whether he will be strong enough to contest for the yellow jersey against Froome, Bardet, Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) or Movistar's trio of leaders Nairo Quintana, Mikel Landa and Alejandro Valverde, remains to be seen.
"The importance of the Tour is easy to explain," Uran said. "Everything in July is top level - every rider, every stage, every second. It all matters.
"I need to focus for 21 days. It's important to focus in the race, at the dinner table, for the sleep. From the moment you wake up until the moment you go to sleep, it's like the World Championships every single day for three weeks."
Uran will have a support team around him in the mountains that includes two-time stage winner Pierre Rolland and Dani Martinez, who finished third overall at the Tour of California and seventh at the Volta Ciclista a Cataluyna this year. Martinez has competed at the Giro d'Italia twice but will be making his Tour de France debut this year.
"It's always a pleasure to race the Tour, but the main thing isn't only to participate in the race but to be a main actor," said Rolland, who twice finished in the top 10 overall.
"I want to be present in the mountains with Rigo, and if the chance presents itself, to win a stage, but first and foremost, I want to arrive without any problems to the first rest day, to pass all the complicated stages of the first week in the best condition possible."
Simon Clarke will play a leadership role on the road and help the team make decisions that would best benefit the team as a whole in their pursuit of overall victory with Uran.
"When a Tour de France podium is at stake, every decision takes on a new sense of importance," Clarke said. "I had a massive learning curve last year, riding in a team where a bad decision could impact our ability to achieve a great result. I learned a lot last year that I'll bring into this year's race, behind the scenes, to try to provide Rigo with the best opportunity to ride to an even better result than last year."
Stage 9 of the Tour de France will bring the peloton over the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix. It could be a crucial day for the overall contenders, and Uran will have help from cobbles specialist Sep Vanmarcke, who has placed inside the top 10 on four occasions at the Hell of the North, including sixth place this year.
"In theory, the cobble stage would suit me perfectly, but I go to the Tour to help Rigo, so there are no personal goals except to help him as best I can," Vanmarcke said.
"I've had five Tour starts, and this is the first time I'm going with a team fighting for the podium. It's also the first time I do the Tour with #PinkArgyle, so that's exciting."
Uran will also have domestique help from Tom Scully, Lawson Craddock and Taylor Phinney, who can generally be trusted to keep the team's spirits high during the three weeks of racing, when there will no doubt be many ups and downs.
"I think my role is chief vibration officer," Phinney said. "I have to keep the vibes up, make sure the frequencies are calibrated.
"Mostly I'm there as team player, looking after Rigo and the rest of the guys on the flat stages. If there's some sort of a window where I can go for something myself, I'll take that opportunity but that's not what I'm going to the Tour to do - but you never know what can happen over three weeks."
EF Education First-Drapac roster for the Tour de France: Rigoberto Uran (COL), Pierre Rolland (FRA), Dani Martinez (COL), Simon Clarke (AUS) Sep Vanmarcke (BEL), Tom Scully (NZL), Taylor Phinney (USA) and Lawson Craddock (USA)
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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.