Chris Hamilton started the Vuelta a Espana simply aiming to finish his maiden Grand Tour three weeks later in Madrid. Following a strong team time trial in which Sunweb finished third, it was a tumultuous opening week as a virus passed through the team and Warren Barguil was sent home from the race.
Having survived the baptism of fire, Hamilton knew he could make it to Madrid after stage 10 to Elpozo Alimentacion where he finished 52nd.
"I think I the day I knew I'd be ok was probably after stage 10. I wasn't sure how'd I handle it," Hamilton told Cyclingnews. "Obviously, you do get more tired every day but I'd never done anything longer than seven consecutive days racing before. I had a pretty good stage on stage 10 and then I thought if I can do that this far into the race I think I'll be ok. For sure you have bad days but it is good to know you can have good days as well so far into a race."
Making sure to "do all the one percenters" throughout the race to maximise recovery, Hamilton found his body adapting to three-week racing. Across the 20 individual stages, the 22-year-old first-year neo-pro only had four results inside the top-100, but three of those came in the final week. Including the penultimate stage to the Alto de L'Angliru and final day circuit around Madrid.
"Everyone said it was a hard Vuelta in comparison to other years and I think especially as every day was such a fight for the breakaway, quite often it would take an hour for a group to get up the road," he said. "It was constant attacking. There were never any easy days so I think I take comfort in that if I can survive this one, I should be able to handle the rest."
Team Sunweb's decision to remove Barguil from the race for not following team orders and then issuing a statement alerting all to the fact raised several eyebrows. With the Frenchman having enjoyed a breakthrough Tour de France with two stage wins and the mountains jersey, the move looked like weakening the team's bid for the GC. However, the team stayed true to its values and finished in Madrid with Wilco Kelderman in fourth place overall having occupied a podium position for the majority of the final week.
"Looking in from the outside, it would have been quite hard to understand why we would send such a strong rider home," he said. "But when the team and the staff are so passionate about the teamwork and sticking to the goals and that is what we are there. We weren't there for stage results or anything, we were just there to support Wilco. It's the staff decision to make that call and it was a big loss for the support of the team out on the road and everything and we had such a young and inexperienced team as well, it was a bit unsure how we would handle it but Wilco just kept on getting better and better. It was an incredible ride by him to finish fourth in the end and be fighting for the podium. We came into it with top-ten ambitions, and it was quite a great thing to be a part of it."
Negotiating the team politics, Hamilton's ability to reach Madrid was also tested by the virus that swept through the Vuelta peloton. Sunweb would lose Lennard Hofstede, Lennard Kämna and Sam Oomen to illness, while Chad Haga and Søren Kragh Andersen also feel sick and were in doubt of finishing.
"You are so vulnerable being so tired all the time, and I was quite worried about getting sick and that fact that I didn't, I can take some confidence out of how I handled it and the strength of my immune system," he said. "It may have also been a bit of luck and maybe I did get whatever bug they had, but I didn't react to it. You never know."
With his first Grand Tour completed, Hamilton will enjoy a week of recovery in his European base of Girona with the final races of his first year with Sunweb to take place in Italy early next month. Ensuring his debut season in the WorldTour peloton will have lasted ten months and included over 70 race days.
"It is just about taking it easy and getting the most out of the Grand Tour that you can in the legs," he said of his post-Vuelta plans. "My season is not done yet. I still have the Italian races at the start of October, so there is no thought in my head to completely switch it off. I want to finish the season on a good note."
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