Cannondale-Drapac went to cycling’s biggest show, the Tour de France, as a dark horse and came away with a final result usually attributed to the favorites. Their tranquilo Colombian climber, Rigoberto Uran stormed in second place, a mere 54 seconds down on the winner, his best Tour de France result ever. Along the way he took an impressive stage win on Stage 9, two more second places, on stages 12 and 18 while his teammates, four of them rookies, all finished.
Among them, Taylor Phinney wore the Polka Dot King of the Mountains Jersey for a day, only to be unseated by teammate Nate Brown, who held the lead in that competition for the next two days.
Dylan Van Baarle took the Dossard Rouge on stage 7
and honor wearing the “red” number for stage 8 as the most aggressive previous rider of the day
“Just finishing” was enough for Paddy Bevin, who broke his foot in a crash midway through the first stage, and not only got up and finished on that day, but finished every day, riding much of the Tour with a loose shoe to cope with his swollen foot.
There is only one champion of the Tour. There are only three other jerseys to win. Only 21 stages to contest, not much in the way of spoils for 198 of the best racers in the world.
Cannondale-Drapac, like every team, came with a dream of animating the Le Grande Boucle to put their unique stamp on the race. Victory is always a long shot, and a team always needs a back-up plan, so the team decided that being aggressive during the stages, the earlier the better, would offer more opportunities, more chances for race-impacting success.
“It doesn’t cost anything to dream,” said Tour rookie Alberto Bettiol. “So lets dream.”
The Tour began with a rainy time trial in Dusseldorf, Germany. A number of riders crashed on a particularly treacherous left turn, among them was first-timer Paddy Bevin. Sliding out at 30mph is never pleasant, and Bevin went sliding across the road and into the course barriers. Somewhere on the long slide or the sudden stop, the impact broke his foot. He chose to continue, thinking it was merely a sprained ankle, and kept the information inside the team.
On the first road stage, Tour debutant Taylor, one of three Americans in the Tour, was instructed before the start by directeur sportif Charly Wegelius to get into the early break and win the first two short climbs of the race. He did, with an attack he started less than a kilometer into the stage establish the day’s breakaway group. In the closing kilometers Taylor would use is power to drop his breakaway companion and going solo on until he was swarmed by the field with less than a kilometer to go.
While the stage victory was impossible, the Polka Dot Jersey of the leader of the King of the Mountains competition was his. At least for the next stage. “It felt like a dream,” Taylor recalled, telling reporters that he wanted a Polka Dot helmet and shorts to go along with the jersey.
On the second road stage, the team set out to defend the dots. Another Tour Rookie Nate Brown got in the move that went away. His job was to win as many of the KOM’s as he could with four of them during the stage and one more at the finish. He won two of them, and thus took the jersey off the shoulders of Phinney. “I’m overwhelmed with joy,” Nate explained. “I never thought in a million years I’d be in the polka dot jersey at the Tour. I have no words. I’m speechless. I really don’t know what to say.”
Brown wore the jersey for two more stages, until the mountaintop finish at La Planche des Belles Filles, which concluded Stage 5. It was on that climb that team leader Rigo showed his fitness, finishing seventh, 26 seconds down on the stage winner, and moving into 11th place.
When the race returned to flatter terrain, Dylan Van Baarle, a flatlander by birth, a classics rider by trade, went on the attack from kilometer zero. He was part of a quartet that struck out for Nuits-Saint-Georges, knowing that the sprint teams would be keen to hunt them down. Under his leadership, they stayed away until 12km remaining, where they were swept up by the field. But Dylan would not give up without fight and remained the last man up the road for which he was awarded the prize of most aggressive rider on the stage, and thus got to wear the red number, the Dossard Rouge for the next stage.
On Stage 9, a brutal mountain stage with seven categorized climbs, finishing in Chambery, Rigo confirmed his excellent form. Descending the final mountain with the leaders, his rear derailleur was knocked out of commission by a once in a million hit from Dan Martin’s foot during a nasty crash. He kept riding. Off the mountain, he asked the Mavic neutral service mechanic in the follow-car to put the rear derailleur in the 11-tooth sprocket.
He then returned to his place at the front and went on with the job. He led out the sprint in that biggest gear, and won in a photo finish, moving up to fourth overall in the process.
It also highlighted one of Rigo’s other strengths. Vaughters explains, “The difference between Rigo and pretty much every other bike racer I’ve ever met in my life is Rigo never loses his cool, and that’s why he won today. Even though he had this major mechanical, he never lost his cool for one second. I was nervous. He wasn’t. And that was all the difference in the end.”
The stages that follow would lead the team to defend a GC position while strategizing how to move further up the ladder that most would not have expected from an underdog team carrying four Tour rookies, the only American’s in the race, and notable for their tweets as much as they are noted for fighting above their weight class
The middle part of the Tour was a mix of new style stages set to shift the paradigm of Tour de France racing and sprint stages that would keep the team focused on Rigo staying out of trouble and at the front.
Any mountain stages would be Rigo’s chance take it to his rivals, like stage 12 where his second-place time bonus gave him a boost, and for the first time see the defending champion surrender precious time to his rivals.
Into the Alps on stage 17 and Rigo again finishes second, leap-frogging the former Maillot Jaune, Fabrio Aru, into third on GC just 29 seconds down on the defending champ and six seconds out second. This would set-up the show down on penultimate stage, an ITT in Marseille.
Starting the Stage 20 time trial in Marseille Rigo set about securing his podium position. A position that no one really expected Rigo or the Cannondale-Drapac team to be in, let alone a whisper away from the Yellow Jersey. With only 22.5km to make up the gap on Froome, it would take the ride of his career to eclipse the defending champion
Rigo went in cool as always, no drama, ready for his legs to do the talking. And rode a strong time trial reaffirming him as a Grand Tour contender overtaking second-placed Romain Bardet. This would put Rigo 54 seconds short of victory in the Tour, second place overall in one of the closest Tours in history. A success by any measure for any team.
Stage 21, the ride to Paris, is often a formality for general classification, and it was again, thanks, in part, to Cannondale-Drapac protecting Rigo in their slipstream until the final kilometer.
“Finishing second to Froome at less than a minute seems pretty good to me, reflected Rigo.
“It’s a quality final podium in Paris, so this is the greatest success of my career. This result is dedicated to my family, friends, my team and everyone who has supported me during the last three weeks.”
The team, with four Tour rookies, the only Americans, and a dark-horse threat for overall victory, finished all nine riders, and a share of the spoils the envy of most teams. Second overall, a stage win, a most-aggressive rider award, and three days in the Polka Dot Jersey.
Rider Pierre Rolland, himself a former Tour stage winner revealed in the memorable team race, “I have a good memory and a bad memory. The good memory is how we raced as a team to put Rigo on the podium, to win a stage. There were very good feelings in all the team for all the Tour. It was very special.”
As tough as finishing the Tour is, finishing with a broken foot is tougher. Paddy kept going after his Stage 1 crash all the way to the finish line in Paris. “I didn't want a crash on stage one to define my Tour. Riding on as a functional member of a team that fought to win the Tour de France was an honor, and it is a memory I will have for the rest of my life."
The experience of being part of a cohesive team, a squad that was able to surpass expectations and come within seconds of the win, is a sentiment every rider echoed. Nate Brown summed it up best when he said, “Getting Rigo on the podium, it’s not something I would have ever thought would happen in my first Tour de France. This team rose above its abilities every single day. The way we did that is something that will stick with me.”
It is something that should stay with the team, the staff, the sponsors, and the supporters.