Lacking a rider in the hunt for the overall win at this year's Giro d'Italia, EF Education First have been searching for an elusive stage win instead. They've come close over the past two stages, with Hugh Carthy taking fourth and fifth, respectively, on stages 15 and 16, even if it sometimes meant switching tactics mid-stage.
Carthy, the 24-year-old Briton, was in the top 10 overall following stage 12 to Pinerolo, but a bad day on stage 13 to Lago Serru saw him drop to 16th overall and then to 17th the following day in Courmayeur, where current race leader Richard Carapaz (Movistar) won the day and the maglia rosa.
Carthy bounced back dramatically during Sunday's stage 15 to Como, which took in three categorised climbs in the final 70km. He finished fourth on the stage in a group with Carapaz, Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) and moved up to 14th overall, but still 14:38 behind Carapaz.
All in for Dombrowski on Mortirolo
During Tuesday's queen stage, which took on the category 1 Passo del Mortirolo before the finish in Ponte di Legano 27km later, EF Education First played their cards to perfection, putting Joe Dombrowski and Nate Brown into a large breakaway that got away on Passo de la Presolana early in the day.
Brown rode hard into the bottom of the Mortirolo to thin out the breakaway, looking to set up Dombrowski on the climb. But the plan went awry when Dombrowski faltered as the pace went up on the Mortirolo and the large move whittled down to just five.
"Joe is far [down] on GC, so he was the one who was supposed to be in the break, and Nate was with him to support, so we went all in for Joe until the climb, " EF Education First director Fabrizio Guidi said after the stage. "Then they were pulling so fast, and Joe maybe didn't have his best day to win a stage, so at that point when he started losing time, then we stopped one and then the other one and supported Hugh until the end.
"We started out trying to win the stage, and we got into the good break," Guidi said. "Hugh is closer to the GC contenders, and it's not easy to move or attack with him, so that's why today we decided to play the other cards."
Joe Dombrowski lost contact with the leaders on steepest pitches of the Motirolo (Getty)
Carthy takes over
When EF's first hand went bust, they relied on another draw that was taking place further down the road. Carthy was on a good day, riding with the pink jersey group of Carapaz, Nibali and, for a while at least, Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma).
"I knew my legs were good from the start of the stage," Carthy said back at the team bus after the stage. "Usually after a rest day, you know straight away if you're going well or you're going to have problems. I felt good, and so I just sat there all day and conserved and conserved and conserved."
The conservative effort paid off well for Carthy when the GC race started to blow apart on the Mortirolo as Roglic suffered and Nibali went on the attack in the climb's steepest 18 per cent section.
"We hit the [Mortirolo] and the race just exploded, well, it didn't really explode, but teams just started riding harder and harder," Carthy said. "Then Nibali attacked and got a gap, and I bridged across to him. I probably could have waited with the little group I was with."
Nibali welcomedf the company on the climb, but he was quickly disappointed when Carthy wouldn't work with him.
"I still had two teammates up the road at that point, and he wanted me to work on the climb," Carthy said. "But when you're riding at a 10-to-12 per cent gradient, there's not much shelter there anyway."
Both Brown and Dombrowski eventually came back to Carthy's group, supporting their new leader's effort to bring home the best finish possible with two strong riders still up the road in eventual stage winner Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) and runner-up Jan Hirt (Astana).
"In the valley, when me and Joe were instructed not to work with [Nibali] because it was their race, their GC race, we were taking a chance that the race might come back together with the remaining breakaway riders," Carthy said. "We were taking the chance that it could come back together and we could contest for the stage win, which it didn't.
"So I sprinted for fourth in the end and got fifth," he said. "Nibali beat me, but I don't think he was happy with that. But it wasn't a disrespect thing, it was just bike racing."
Carthy's fifth-place finish moved him up another GC spot to 13, still 14:38 behind Carapaz and 8:21 behind Best Young Rider Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana).
Vincenzo Nibali has words for Hugh Carthy at the end of stage 16 (Bettini)
At the end of the day, Carthy was thrilled with his finish. If not a stage win, it provided proof once again that he can ride with the best in the world over the high mountains. Fifth place on the Giro's queen stage was a satisfying result.
"When you're feeling good and you're confident, you can ride with an ambitious head, and, yeah, I'm very happy, very happy," he said, reflecting on his day.
"It gives me confidence, but the nature of the race is unpredictable," he said. "Today I felt good, very good, but tomorrow I could wake up and feel terrible. So you have to keep a level head and keep preparing the same way, eating and recovering. Don't get carried away.
To keep himself from getting "carried away" over his performances the past two stages, Carthy doesn't have to look too far.
"I had a bad day three or four days ago, and at the time I didn't know it was a bad day," he said. "I thought, 'Ah, maybe this is just the level I'm at at the moment. My legs have gone a little bit.' But now I've come back, and it can happen to other people. It has happened to other people, and it could happen to me again."
His attitude is a sign of the maturity and growth that will be necessary to fulfil greater GC ambitions in the Grand Tours, and his ability to bounce back from disappointment - and be ready to compete after the rest day - is another sign of that growth.
"I trained a bit harder than I did on the previous rest day and ate well, and I think I managed it quite well," he said. "The staff on the team have got good experience, especially for a young rider. Experience is crucial. I think on some other teams you can get some bad advice on rest days that really messes you up.
"Everyone is stepping up," Carthy said. "Myself and Joe were at the forefront today, but we've had people at the forefront in all areas of the race, in the breakaways, sprints. Maybe we laughed a little bit the past few nights that we're the B team, but I think we're holding our own against the best at the moment."
And for the moment, both Carthy and his director are satisfied with the progress he's shown so far.
"I think he didn't even expect this progression," Guidi said. "But here we are, and its effect, and we are there and we need to change the mind to fight with the contenders. That's good for him, but also for us."
While Carthy may be looking toward the GC with one eye, the team are fully focused on getting that stage win. Guidi said the two are not mutually exclusive, however.
"Every day is a fight now between the GC guys and it's always open," he said. "So doing the GC and doing the stage until now are more or less the same. We'll see in the next day and we'll see tonight what is the GC and what we can do, but our main target is to win one stage."
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