Mitchelton-Scott fighting through bruising Vuelta a España a year after victory
'It's the toughest Grand Tour I've ever done' says director Julian Dean
A year is a lifetime in cycling, and this time last September, Mitchelton-Scott were on the point of claiming their first-ever Grand Tour win in the Vuelta a España.
This time, in a Vuelta where bad luck, injuries and crashes have beset the Australian WorldTour squad, the GC is long forgotten. Each day they are throwing the dice of getting in breakaway wins and fighting to keep their heads high in a completely different scenario.
Asked by Cyclingnews earlier this week if he recalled such a difficult Grand Tour, lead director Julian Dean replied: "I was thinking that. I did 21 Grand Tours as a rider and probably 11 or 12 as a sports director, but I can't remember one that's been as tough as this for any team I've been in.
"We had high expectations when we came and then when things don't work out, it's a little tougher. We have guys that you know can win stages and be on the podium in Madrid.
"There are probably other teams here that don't have all those athletes with all those qualities, so if they'd had a run like ours, it wouldn't matter so much. But we knew we had all the goods coming here."
The most dramatic collapse of fortune for Mitchelton-Scott came when a clearly in-form Luka Mezgec's crashed and abandoned with a fractured hip. The Slovenian fastman was cranking up to go for the sprint in Oviedo.
GC contender Esteban Chaves has had an extraordinary run of back luck, too, with two mechanicals and bike changes. Dean said the bad luck happened at the most inopportune moments.
"They were just at the worst points in the race on Los Machucos and Andorra, just as the race was splitting up," he said.
Later in the stage race, Chaves had one big crash, alongside Mezgec, on the eve of a stage in Asturias. He had been targetting the stage since the race began. He hurt his back and suffered for several days as he recovered.
"Expectations were high for this race, but for one reason or another bad luck and falls have happened," Chaves told Cyclingnews earlier in the third week.
"I was talking to the guys, and in five years in this team, I never had a bike change, just punctured a few times. Then what happened in Andorra and again in Los Machucos."
Dean questioned out loud why the team had been hit by such bad luck.
"I definitely think about why this is happening to us, especially as the lead director of the organisation at this race, you have to ask those questions. What's wrong and why are we not in the same position as we were last year? It would be irresponsible in my position not to do that," he said.
"We've had a continuation of a lot of small things happening along the way, and with that kind of accumulation you're always playing catchup. We really have to drive to keep the morale up, to let the guys know there are opportunities, and keep them engaged. We have such good talent, normally everybody has to support that talent, but it's time for the other guys to able to step up.
"Facing the difficulties isn't just about being resilient; it's important to lighten the mood at times – Damien Howson and Tsgabu Grmay, they're having their own personal breakaway competition. They've been in three apiece," he adds with a grin. "When things are hard like this, it's important to keep the humour going. We've got a good group of people here."
As for Chaves, Dean says that he went down heavily in the crash with Mezgec and that cost him the opportunity to go for a stage win.
"But we know he's a fighter; there are opportunities for him, guys like Mikel [Nieve] and Dion Smith as well."
Dean believes that, collectively, the team was in better shape at the start of this year's Vuelta than they were last year. However, the results are proving to be radically different.
"Esteban and the whole of the team have always been focussed on the Vuelta, it's been part of their plan, the team was better prepared," Dean said. "But things have worked out the way they have, that's Lady Luck."
Regardless of their misfortune, though, the Australian squad are still pushing as hard as they possibly can to get some success in the final segment of the Vuelta. It could be that their determination will yet be rewarded between here and Madrid.
"It's frustrating as well, we put a lot of work in, suffering in the rain and cold sometimes out training," said Chaves. "But that's life; we have to go on and go on fighting, trying to do what we can. I hope that one of us can still do something here."
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The Independent, The Guardian, ProCycling, The Express and Reuters.