It’s not been 24 hours since the end of the race across the Basque Country as I sit and wait at the airport for a flight home and have some time to gather my thoughts last week after a sleepless night.

We had six difficult stages ahead of us without a day when I could say we could get some rest. We made a lot of progress with the team compared to last year, as we were aiming for the overall victory. It would have been difficult to imagine such a prediction last year, but obviously, we have all made so much progress in less than a year that the ambitions and wishes of the team have grown so much, as well as the quality and readiness of all of us, including the accompanying staff.

There were two Captains on the team this time: Brandon McNulty and me. Brandon drove the introductory chronometer perfectly. Mine wasn’t entirely 100 percent, but I was still pleased with my performance.  I lost a few important seconds, but I also learned something from this very specific time trial. After the first day, we were both in a great situation for the upcoming stages.

In the second stage, I managed to sprint to third place and four bonus seconds, which brought me a little closer to the leaders in the overall standings. In this stage, Brandom lost a few seconds but remained in the overall standings ahead of me – in an excellent third place.

In the third stage, I managed to achieve a victory on the final ascent with the slope finish. Brandon lost a few seconds, but he showed that even on a slope, although a little taller and heavier than me, he can ride great and is not just a good timekeeper. When it comes to the stage 3 victory I have to especially thank the management who took me by car in the morning to see the final ascent and the route to the finish line. Of course, the final ascent was also examined by many of my competitors. I knew exactly where I had to be in front if I wanted to take the stage victory and I did exactly that since the final 200 meters didn’t offer any chance for overtaking. Of course, I was happy with the victory, as well as the ten-second bonus, which meant that I was closer to the leading Primož in the overall standings.

In the fifth stage, we fulfilled 95% of our tactical plan with two captains. Brandon managed to execute an escape with some other riders towards the end, gaining the necessary seconds, winning third place, and also taking the yellow jersey of the race leader. This was the biggest success of his career and the first yellow jersey in the World Tour races. That day, of course, we wanted a stage victory, but you just can’t always have it all. It’s also a nice feeling when you see in the “peloton” that others have respect for you, and in the end, that also counts.

On the last day, we were ready for “chaos”, as the last, most difficult stage was awaiting us. At the top of the second slope, team Astana attacked. Two of their cyclists strongly accelerated at the point where the road broke down. We lost that ideal position in front of the group for the descent. Brandon and I stayed somewhere around the tenth position. Additionally, the Ineos team cyclist created a small gap in front of us. In front of him, there was Primož’s assistant Vingegaard, who also had no intention of overtaking on the descent or taking any risks. Before Brandon and I could get past those two, that “gap” widened a little more. On the fast and winding descent, we chased the race leaders to the fullest. It really went fast, but we didn’t want to take a 100 percent risk. When we descended into the city, we flew over the roundabouts, speed bumps, road shafts so fast that the rear derailleur switched to “crash mode” due to all the vibrations on the bike, and for a while, we could not shift to a heavier transmission. Of course, this is not an excuse, because we solved the problem but lost a few seconds.

The front group of the race was going at full speed so the difference to them did not diminish. Since there was a teammate Marc Hirschi in the breakaway group, he waited for us and helped us chase the race leaders. In a strong and bigger group in front, quite a few riders were spinning the pedals at full speed, meaning we were not able to close the gap. This was a turning point in the race. Our plan, where Brandon would follow the main contenders and I would cover any attacks, fell apart like a house of cards. The race turned upside down.

We arrived underneath the steppest ascent of the stage trying to catch the group in front of us. Unfortunately, Brandon could no longer keep up with my pace in this steep part of the slope, so after contacting “our car” I was instructed to continue on my own and try to join the first group. As the difference began to decrease, Primož immediately received this information. He had to attack or increase the pace. As a result, only Gaudu and Carthy were able to follow his pace. I cycled the entire slope to the fullest, catching all cyclist but the first three.

I was hoping to get at least some shift from the rest of the “strong” riders who were in my slipstream. Unfortunately, none of this happened. A little contribution was made by Valverde and Yates, while all the others rode in behind my back at all times and waited for the final climb. That meant I rode the last 30km practically alone as if I were competing in the individual time trial, with the difference that I had a dozen other cyclists on the back bike resting and waiting for their chance.

I had only one thing in mind: to come in third place in the overall standings. The main dangers, however, were Gaudu, who was riding in the front group, and Bilbao, who was riding in my shadow all the time and was in the general classification a few seconds ahead of me. I squeezed EVERYTHING out of myself to the finish line. It was definitely the most “brutal” day for me so far. I was completely exhausted, but very satisfied and happy because I managed to get on the podium also in this beautiful and difficult race. This race also gave us confirmation that we can be the best team in the world.

Of course, my congratulations go to the winner Primož and the Jumbo Visma team, who showed their strength and deservedly won. We took a lot of beautiful moments and memories from the Basque Country, learned a lot of new things, had a nice time, enjoyed ourselves… in short, we were a TEAM with big letters and we will take all this forward towards new challenges.

For Brandon McNulty, I can write that he is still a very young and inexperienced competitor who is learning day by day and progressing from race to race. Undoubtedly, there is still a very bright future ahead of him, as he rides well both on the time trials and uphill. I do not doubt that he will win many more races and time trials in the coming years. At the same time, I am sure that he will be a great assistant when I will require one myself. All good comes back with good. We all tried to help him as much as we could because we think he deserved it. Unfortunately, he ran a bit out of breath on the steepest part of the slope, but he certainly has a bright future ahead of him.

Photo: BettiniPhoto