EF Education First have confirmed their eight-man squad for the upcoming Vuelta a España, with Rigoberto Uran, Tejay van Garderen and Dani Martinez featuring as the US WorldTour team's marquee riders when the third and final Grand Tour of the year gets under way on Saturday.
A three-pronged attack, then, à la Movistar? Not according to sports director Juanma Garate, who says that the team is fully behind Uran as their main GC hope. Indeed, not only does the Colombian have the luxury of van Garderen and Martinez to support him, but up-and-coming climbing specialists such as Hugh Carthy and Sergio Higuita, too.
The team is rounded out by 24-year-old Logan Owen, Lawson Craddock – seventh overall at the recent Tour of Utah – and road captain Mitch Docker of Australia.
"Ten or more years ago, the Vuelta was a nice opportunity for younger riders to be successful," said Garate on EF Education First's website. "It was a quieter race, and was considered the most relaxed race out of the three Grand Tours.
"But that's changed," he added. "Over the past few years, we've seen more riders coming from the Tour de France, like Alberto Contador, Vincenco Nibali and Chris Froome. They considered the Vuelta a really high goal, and when racers like that start to think that way, a race changes, and the way everybody considers the Vuelta has changed, too.
"I think this year's race is one of the hardest we've had in the last 10 years. Because we have so many climbs every day, it's going to be really tough. There are fewer big mountain climbs, but we have more climbs in general," said Garate.
Hoping to be at or near the front on those toughest days will be Uran – no doubt closely followed by van Garden, Martinez, Carthy and Higuita. Should Uran falter or crash, EF Education First should have more than enough firepower as back-up this year.
"I've won stages here at the Vuelta before, but I've never been on the podium," pointed out Uran. "That's a huge motivation going into it. This year has been a bit of an unusual year. I've had very few days of racing, and I felt good at the Tour de France, so I see a great opportunity here at the Vuelta, especially with the strong team we have racing."
Uran broke his collarbone in a crash at Paris-Nice in March, but returned to racing at the Tour of California in May, and lined up for the Tour de France in July, where he finished seventh overall – which was nevertheless some way off his second place of 2017.
"Rigo is really motivated," said Garate. "He's missing a podium place at the Vuelta; he's been on the podium at the Tour de France and at the Giro d'Italia, and I know he would really like to be on the podium in Madrid for the Vuelta. He knows that this year is a great opportunity for him, not only to aim for the podium, but to also win a stage in the race, too."
Van Gardernen also comes to the Vuelta full of motivation after having crashed out of the Tour de France at the end of the first week. The 31-year-old American crashed early on stage 7 between Belfort and Chalon-sur-Saône, fracturing his thumb. Although he completed the stage, battered and bleeding, van Garderen's injuries meant that he was a non-starter the next day.
"I'm really excited about the Vuelta," he said. "I'm happy that the team is giving me a second chance at a Grand Tour after the way the Tour de France ended for me. We're bringing a super-strong team, and I'm ready to fill whatever role the team requires from me."
Martinez, meanwhile, didn't even make the start of the Tour de France, despite it having been on his programme. The 23-year-old broke both his hands in a training crash in June, and didn't return to racing until the Pan American Games individual time trial in Peru in early August, which the Colombian won. It remains the only event he's raced since his injury, as illness then prevented him from starting the Tour of Utah last week.
"It's going to be emotional racing the Vuelta this year for me, because it's a race that I've always dreamed of doing, but have never raced before," said Martinez. "It's also a great opportunity for me after not being able to ride the Tour because of my accident. I feel a bit nervous because I haven't raced that much going into it, but I think we're well prepared."
EF Education First for the 2019 Vuelta a Espana: Hugh Carthy, Lawson Craddock, Mitch Docker, Sergio Higuita, Dani Martinez, Logan Owen, Rigoberto Uran, Tejay van Garderen