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Four riders, two of them GC candidates at the start of the event, were withdrawn from the race on the morning of the stage after returning positive tests COVID-19, leaving just Neilson Powless and Jonas Rutsch able to continue.
Ahead of the young pair lay back-to-back stages in the mountains, followed by a demanding time trial on the final day. With the chase for UCI points more important than ever, the two riders had to deliver some form of result to rescue the race for the American team.
“In that team, the way that Hugh Carthy was going at the Giro, and the way in which Rigoberto Urán raced Suisse last year, without any disrespect to Neilson, he was actually our third card,” sport director Tom Southam tolf VeloNews the morning after the race’s conclusion.
“We had strong leadership from Hugh and Rigoberto and we wanted to put them on the podium. After the first stage that changed because Hugh exploded. Jonathan Vaughters said that Neilson could end up being our best GC rider at the race, and he was right.”
Both Carthy and Urán were still within reach of the top 10 before they were eventually forced out of the race alongside Alberto Bettiol and Stefan Bissegger but an impressive second place from Powless on stage 5 put the 25-year-old American in seventh overall.
EF-Education certainly wasn’t the only team touched by COVID at the race. Bahrain Victorious and Jumbo-Visma pulled out altogether, while Bora-Hansgrohe lost race leader Aleksandr Vlasov ahead of stage 6, too. A reduced peloton certainly gave Powless a degree of hope when it came to the GC but there could be little margin for error.
Rutsch, as the American’s only teammate, had to step us massively in the mountains. On stage 6 he tracked his teammate all the way up the slopes of the final climb before eventually peeling off inside the final few kilometers. Powless would eventually lose just four seconds to his main rivals but jump up to fourth overall. On the following summit finish to Malbun, Rutsch was at it again, surviving onto the final climb and giving Powless every ounce of assistance before succumbing when the GC riders began to up the pace.
Once more Powless limited his losses to come home in 10th and retain his fourth on GC. That’s where the all-rounder would remain, even after a last-minute mechanical scare in the dying moments of the time trial.
Geraint Thomas may have taken the overall result, and Powless may have missed out on a podium, but considering EF Education’s position just three days prior the result was a huge boost for the team.
“That’s Neilson’s best GC result by far, right? He learned from day one to day five about how to tactically ride. On day one he should have been following rather than making moves and that cost him 20 seconds. He’s still emerging and we’ve not seen the limits from He rode a fantastic stage on day 5 in a real cauldron. He’s learning fast and if he just polishes off a few little things then he’ll get some more really big results,” said Southam, who famously won the Tour of Korea as a rider with the aid of just two teammates.
While Powless understandably takes the majority of the plaudits, Rutsch’s ride cannot be forgotten, and it’s no surprise that the German is in line for a second ride at the Tour de France next month.
“He stepped up massively,” Southam said.
“On the first mountain stage the speed wasn’t super high in the bunch because of the heat and Jonas was there for a long time. I know that he can climb, and that he’s that good. He rode out of his skin but to back it up the next day, that was the super impressive ride for me. Dylan van Baarle was gone before Jonas was.”
“Even when everyone went there was still that mentality within the team and Jonas took up that mantle on his own. There’s not much that you can do when you’re left with just two riders, except for keeping Neilson out of the wind for 186km. It was 36 degrees and baking hot, but even with extra feeds it’s not going to be enough, so Jonas had to come back to the car and get more bidons, and then keep Neilson covered.”
Keeping the entire team staff at the race was also an important factor in the final result – especially when factoring in that without some quick thinking from Southam and a team mechanic Powless could have lost his fourth place in the final time trial due to his mechanical.
Ensuring that the two riders had the complete support of the backroom staff meant that all bases could be covered in terms of feed zones and recovery. It also took some of the pressure off Rutsch’s shoulders during those two critical days in the mountains.
“We kept everyone. The way that the feeds work in WorldTour races now, it’s getting rare for riders to come back to the cars because the speeds are so high and it’s so intense. In the Tour for example, there’s a huge intensity just coming back to the car so the extra feeds are really important. They’re super complex to plan and you have to be quite creative but we didn’t change the staff because we were so committed to the result. Taking staff home wasn’t really fair on Neilson and Jonas. The machine is so big at a team now that you really need all of those components for things to work.”