Dimension Data's difficult Vuelta a España showed no sign of letting up on Thursday after Serge Pauwels became the fifth rider of their original nine starters to drop out of the race. Nonetheless, the team intends to fight on.
The Belgian all-rounder, winner of the Tour de Yorkshire this spring and one of their most experienced racers, went down with the same virus that had laid low three of his teammates, Ben King, Nick Dougall and Youcef Reguigui earlier in the race, causing them all to abandon. A fourth, Merhawi Kudus, crashed out, hurting his knee badly, on the stage to Cuenca.
"Depending on each person and how they react to the virus, it has an effect sooner or later," Dimension Data sports director Alex Sans Vega told Cycingnews at the start of the stage. "With Serge, it started a couple of days ago, yesterday for the first couple of hours he was OK, but he finished the stage really empty.
"He barely slept last [Wednesday] night, could hardly eat anything of the supper or breakfast, he's got a bad stomach, is sick and has diarrhea. It was so bad he weighed three kilos less this morning."
Logically a non-starter, two of the rest of the four Dimension Data riders still in the race had been affected by the virus, Lachlan Morton and Omar Fraile, but they are both now better, Sans Vega said. "We just have to go on battling and hope for better times."
True to the team's word, Omar Fraile made it into the break of the day on Thursday but was unable to match a blistering attack by stage winner Tomasz Marczynski (Lotto-Soudal) on the final climb. The former King of the Mountains in the Vuelta a España and stage winner in the Giro d'Italia this May had to settle for second.
"Unfortunately, I suffered from a few cramps on the last climb when the Lotto-Soudal rider attacked so I decided to keep my own pace towards the top," Fraile said later in a press release.
"In the final part, we rode really hard but it was not possible to catch him again. However, I'm still happy because last week I was sick and almost going home. We are only four riders left in the team now but we will continue to fight. There are still more opportunities for us."
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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