Ill-fated echelons: How EF-Education First missed the move it started

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EF Education First started the fight, they just didn’t finish it.

On a day that could easily have been a mellow transition into the first rest day, Mother Nature had other ideas. A series of crosswind-induced splits saw EF’s leader Rigoberto Uran lose 1:40 to the Ineos duo of Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal, as well as Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), Steven Kruijkswijk (Jumbo-Visma), and race leader Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step).

“Well, that sucked,” EF team CEO Jonathan Vaughters tweeted.

The odd thing about this time loss is that it can’t be put down to inattention, or even any obvious mistake.

“We’d been feeling them all day,” Mike Woods said. He was talking about crosswinds. They came from the north, steady most of the day. As thick forest gave way to open fields, the whole peloton knew it was one curve away from detonation. EF certainly knew. They’d marked the very spot where the peloton began to stretch on the course map the night before.

“We knew that at 142 kilometres, -ish, it would start picking up,” Woods said. “The big X was on 174.”

Just after 174 was a roundabout. It was the same point marked by Ineos in its team meeting.

“There was a point of the race when it went onto narrow roads, into potential crosswinds. We knew it was coming,” said Ineos’ Dave Brailsford. “So we went to the front first. And then we came to that big roundabout. And I think we took the wrong side, to be honest. We came back into the peloton halfway up, and EF took it on. But they blew. Just as all the Quick-Step, the Boras, and us came back up.”

Woods’s account sounds much the same: “I’m pretty sure that [Ineos] or Quick-Step kicked it off,” he said, before correcting himself. “We actually kicked it off initially, but then got overtaken, and chaos ensued.”

That roundabout, the one most teams had circled, did turn out to be the moment. But knowing it was coming didn’t seem to help.

The chaos Woods described meant that the team responsible for initiating echelons soon found itself spitting off the back of a hyper-select group led by Deceuninck-Quick-Step, Ineos, and Movistar. Urán hung on to the group’s tail for a moment, then tailed off. By the time the team regrouped in the second echelon, the gap was at 30 seconds.

Collectively, they had just put in a massive effort. And now they needed to put in another one to close a yawning gap.

“We had it down to about 10 seconds and that’s when I blew up so that’s the last I saw of it,” Woods said. “I’m pretty sure that Rigo didn’t get back on.”

He did not. He rolled across the line with Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo), Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana).

So how does this happen? How does a team prepared for the crosswinds, the team that initiated the echelons, miss the move?

At the finish, director Charly Wegelius wasn’t yet sure. “I don’t know what happened inside the race,” he told ITV. “All we get is info about who’s where. We’ll talk to the riders later.”

It’s clear that Monday’s splits weren’t the result of some secret genius crosswind plan on the part of Ineos or Quick-Step. Every team had a crosswind plan. Every team CyclingTips spoke to knew the exact kilometre the pace would surge.

So if it wasn’t planning, was it execution? EF, by Woods’ own admission, went a bit early.

The most likely answer is the obvious one: It wasn’t planning or timing, it was the combined horsepower of the world’s best lead-out train, Deceuninck-Quick-Step, a bunch of strongmen from Bora-Hansgrohe, and four world-class classics men from Ineos.

Brailsford nailed it: “Once you’ve got those guys on the front, you’re not bringing them back.”

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