Maximiliano Richeze is a quality sprinter in his own right, but riding for Quick-Step Floors with the likes of Tom Boonen, Marcel Kittel and now Fernando Gaviria, he has rarely been given the chance to ride for himself.
That chance came unexpectedly Wednesday in the Vuelta a San Juan after Gaviria crashed and the 34-year-old jumped all over it, winning the chaotic stage 4 sprint in Villa San Augustin ahead of Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek-Segafredo) and Matteo Pelucchi (Bora-Hansgrohe).
"This year I don't have the freedom to ride for myself and go for the victory," Richeze said in the post-stage press conference. "I have to work for Fernando, but after his crash, I have a talk with the team and also my teammates and we decided that I would do the sprint."
It was a split-second decision that paid big dividends for Quick-Step Floors, and it required a quick change in attitude for the Argentinean.
"Sometimes it's difficult to change the mentality because you feel the pressure and also the questions can arrive in your mind," he said. "But, fortunately, I had a very good team that put me in the perfect position to do the sprint.
"From the start, I had good feelings in the legs, but I was also advantaged by the headwind on the climbs, which allowed me to sit in the wheels of the stronger guys."
Two category 1 climbs in quick succession early in the stage provided a challenge for the sprinters, but both Richeze and Gaviria made it over and were in contention when disaster struck as Gaviria appeared to cross wheels with the rider in front of him and he hit the deck hard.
Gaviria was behind his teammates, who didn't know that he had fallen and started to push the pace at the front with Lotto Soudal as the peloton split in two.
"We tried to communicate with him with the radio and he didn't answer," Richeze said. "Then the team said to us that he had crashed, so we had to stop and we didn't continue working on the front of the peloton."
The team regrouped and rallied around Richeze as the front group continued to gain time on the chasers. A brief neutralisation at a water hazard slowed things for a bit, but the race was back at full gallop as the lead peloton barrelled into town with Quick-Step, Lotto Soudal, Bora-Hansgrohe and Trek-Segafredo all trying to establish supremacy.
Quick-Step took the lead at 2km, and Alvaro Hodeg dropped off Richeze with 200 metres to go. Richeze powered his way to the line to take his third-ever stage win in San Juan to go with his two victories last year.
"I feel very happy to win in my country," Richeze said. "Of my 13 years as a professional rider, I haven't raced a lot in Argentina, and the few races I have done have been here in San Juan, so I have very good memories of this region."
Richeze was part of a Quick-Step near sweep last year at the race, as he took two stages, Gaviria took two and Tom Boonen claimed one. Five wins and seven stages is a tall order, but the team is on track to come close with two wins out of four opportunities.
Friday's stage 5 to Alto Colorado will be a day for the climbers, as Richeze acknowledged during the press conference, but the sprinters will likely surge back to the fore on the final two days. Richeze said that he could be back in a domestique role by then.
"Today was my day, for sure," he said, "but the other days we will try to win with Alvaro Hodeg. I will have to work for Alvaro."
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