The Take Out | Vuelta Stages 16-21 and Damien Howson Interview

Photo: Zac Williams

Photo: Zac Williams

The third and final Grand Tour of the year is finished, and Primoz Roglic is finally a Grand Tour winner. Have you also heard he used to be a ski jumper? He was infallible in the final week, maintaining his advantage over the Movistar duet of Alejandro Valverde and Tadej Pogacar.

Pogacar was the star of the final week, taking his third stage win of the race as he launched an audacious raid on the final GC stage, and grabbed back two minutes on the top GC men.

Crosswinds also featured, as the fairly innocuous transitional Stage 17 turned into a throwdown. Nairo Quintana took back five minutes to relaunch his GC bid and jump into second. But his challenge faded away in the final days.

Alejandro Valverde still looks like he will never fade though, as the 39-year-old World Champion took his sixth podium place at the race.

Deceuninck-QuickStep finished with five victories, as Fabio Jacobsen and Philippe Gilbert both won their second stage each, and Remi Cavagna won a stage. Making them the most successful team at the race, though Movistar won the Team Classification overall.

We caught up with Damien Howson again, to ask about the final week, and for his reflections on the race.

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Stanley Street Social: In the last week of a grand tour, how do you approach the stages when the team doesn’t have a strong objective? Did you feel like they were a couple of free rolls of the dice, or were you counting down the day? 

Damien Howson: I think no matter where it is in the race, every team has an objective, whether it’s chasing the stage, or conserving energy. With the Vuelta having so few sprint stages to control, and some scrappy finishes, there were plenty of opportunities for all of us non-sprinters in the team to have a go in the breakaways and try and pull off a result. The guys that weren’t in the break were just replenishing energy, while looking after Mikel and his overall GC result. 

I think it’s only normal to count down the days, but everyone likes the feeling of success, and when you get to the last week of a grand tour the game of musical chairs. There’s a lot of teams that haven’t won stages as they’d like during the race, and the opportunities were getting fewer and fewer. 

SSS: There was a bit of talk from some Mitchelton-SCOTT guys that it was up there with the hardest Grandy Tours that they’d done; how did you rate it in terms of difficulty?

DH: I definitely agree that this was one of the most difficult grand tours I’ve done, physically and probably mentally. There were a lot of long transfers, especially in the first half of the race. Leaving the hotel at 10 in the morning, and not getting back before 9:30 or 10 at night makes for a long day. Then you still have a massage and dinner once you arrive, it makes for such long days.

The racing was pretty relentless, the break wasn’t going for one or two hours, in stages or sometimes even in stages. I think I saw there was an average of 2800m over the 21 stages, it was taxing and it makes for very hard racing. There few super difficult stages there, Usually, when there have been five crazy stages, they’re also mixed up with sprint stages and a very flat parcours. This Vuelta never had these completely flat days, where, as long as you weren’t in a sprint team, you could relax and build some energy for the coming days.

SSS: How do you reflect on your efforts in the race? You shook up a few breaks

DH: I was pretty happy with how the Grand Tour played out for me, I knew I was there to support the likes of Esteban and Mikel, and if the occasion came up to get in a break, I would. I guess once Esteban has his second mechanical and put a dent in his GC ambitions, we changed focus a fair bit. Pretty much all of us every day had a free card to get in the breakaway and try to get a result.

After my fourth place on stage 11, I got a taste for being in the break, and being so close to success, I truly believed I could get a result, so I guess that’s why I kept trying and being present in those breaks. Every day has a different way how it plays out; how I feel, how the other guys feel, the course, and how the finish is, so that’s how it is sometimes. But the body held up pretty well over three weeks, and I’ll definitely enjoy some rest now

I said in our first conversation I was aiming to be consistent and that’s something I very much was. I was working a bit harder to make the breaks, and once I was there I was using a fair bit more energy and putting more physical pressure on myself than if I was back in the bunch. But I think I was backing up well day-to-day, and that consistency I was after was definitely there, which was pleasing

SSS: We heard you were having a breakaway competition with your teammate Tsagbu Grmay, seeing who can make the most breaks; did you win that one?

DH: I don’t know how it really kind of worked, we were trying to get in the breaks every day along with everyone on the team, but it turned out most days it was either one of us. We were also roommates, so that became the running joke and competition amongst the team; who was getting in the breakaways? On a serious note, we were both trying to get a result which was the ultimate prize, but it was some light-hearted fun.

It ran down all the way to the final stage, we’d been in 5 breaks each. I had a bit of a go in the final stage; it didn’t turn out, but I got a bit of a gap, so I think that was enough to take the win

SSS: And the team, how do they reflect on it? It would have been good to see Mikel Nieve crack the Top 10 in the final mountain stage

DH: The team was very honest; we were defending champions obviously, and what we achieved last year was phenomenal. But the team is far from disappointed with the way we all delivered and made an effort. We all put in individually, and collectively as a team. when you try 100%, that’s all you can ask for.

We’re all aware of the bad luck we had with mechanicals and the crash with Luka, and it changed the outcome, and what results you can see. That’s how professional sport works sometimes, and we’ll learn from it.

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Thanks to Damien for doing these interviews over the course of the race with us - you can read over the rest of the interviews here at SSS.

See you back at the social club,

Josh

Joshua DugganComment