After ten days where his worst position in the Tour de France overall standings had been fourth place, things fell apart with a vengeance for Colombia's Rigoberto Urán (EF Education-Nippo) on the race's last high mountain stage 18 on Thursday.
The Colombian veteran began falling behind two-thirds of the way up the Tourmalet, the second last climb of the day and first of two monster hors categorie ascents. By the finish, he was 43rd on the stage, nearly nine minutes down.
In the process, having dropped from second to fourth on Wednesday, on Thursday Urán was the only top-ten finisher to lose placings again, sliding from fourth to tenth.
Urán had two EF Education-Nippo teammates, Magnus Cort and Neilson Powless, backing him but according to sports director Tom Southam, there was only so much the two team workers could do to help the 2017 Tour runner-up.
"It [Uran collapsing so badly] was not something we thought was impossible given how little racing he's done this year," Southam told Cyclingnews.
"Pre-Suisse," where Urán claimed second overall and won a stage, "we didn't have ideas of a Tour podium, put it that way.
"Things changed and they were going quite well. But it's been a hard Tour, back-end loaded. And he hadn't prepared for it in an ideal way because of COVID, having a birth in his family to handle, and so on and so forth."
Southam's analysis of Urán's somewhat patchy build-up to the Tour was echoed even before the race by the team's head honcho Jonathan Vaughters.
"We didn't really know where he was performance-wise because he's had a lot going on this spring," Vaughters told Cyclingnews before the Brittany start.
"His wife wanted to give birth to their daughter in the US so he was in Florida for quite a long time and then he did [Volta a] Catalunya but immediately got COVID right after."
However, with three top-10 placings in the Tour on his palmarès – including second place behind Chris Froome in 2017 – the Colombian was the team's best hope for a GC challenge. And up until this Thursday, he remained steadfastly in the battle for the podium.
"Suisse was way above expectations and how he went on the Ventoux", where he took fifth and moved up to second, "it made me think things might be a bit different," Southam said. "But I think he's just run out of gas."
Southam praised Urán for his hard work helping place riders in breaks throughout the Tour, saying "he was as supportive as he could be and did a good job of that."
"But I don't think we would have done things differently had he not felt good at the start of the Tour or had he crashed in the first week."
EF Education-Nippo have played a two-handed strategy throughout the race, placing riders like Sergio Higuita in breakaways, reflecting what Southam said was "an unknown quantity" in how far Urán could go.
"In 2017, we knew he was flying from Tirreno onwards. This year we just didn't know. Rigo' always knew how hard this Tour was and he always kept a relaxed head about it. And even with Magnus and Neilson, he was struggling a bit, I had to slow them down."
Southam ultimately says that the team could not be dissatisfied with Urán, pointing out that "If you'd told us in spring this year he'd get in the top ten of the Tour," we'd have said, 'OK, that's good.'
But the end when it came was brutal, even if Southam pointed out that "we had a hint of it yesterday when he got dropped with six kilometres to go, not two to go."
"But overall we were ahead of our expectations, and that was great. And now, honestly, we're a little bit behind. But it is what it is."
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 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. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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