With nine stages remaining, EF Education-Nippo’s best placed rider in La Vuelta is a Danish sprinter who has never finished higher than 56th in a Grand Tour. Hardly ideal, it would seem, for a team who entered the race with ambitions of winning the red jersey.
This time last year, Britain’s Hugh Carthy has just won Stage 12 on the mighty Alto de l’Angliru to move up into third place in the general classification – a position he would keep all the way to Madrid as the then 26-year-old cemented a career-first podium finish in a Grand Tour. This in a race where Magnus Cort and Michael Woods had also picked up stage wins – a race that was perhaps the most successful in EF’s Grand Tour history.
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Fast forward 11 months and the outlook seemed rather bleak when that man Carthy was caught out in the crosswind splits that animated the business end of Stage 6. With Cort riding up the road in the five-man breakaway, Carthy was pedalling squares in no-man’s land. He was paced back by his teammates just ahead of the Alto de la Montana de Cullera – but sunk like a stone as soon as the gradient ramped up.
As Carthy inexplicably lost almost three minutes to drop out of GC contention in the opening week, a silver lining could be found in Cort’s performance. Not only did the Dane prove to be the strongest of the breakaway, he somehow managed to defy a late charge by Primoz Roglic – not the mention the double-digit gradient – to take a morale-boosting victory for EF at the top of the climb.
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An out-of-sorts Carthy didn’t last much longer, the rangy rider from Preston pulling up on the first climb in Stage 7, effectively checking EF out of the GC battle. A week later, Carthy would be joined by fellow Briton Simon Carr as another DNF for EF.
The team may be depleted and down, but they’re not out – as Cort has gone on to prove. It’s unlikely that the 28-year-old Dane would be getting so many opportunities to battle it out in breakaways were Carthy still in the race and sniffing around on GC.
In all likelihood, Cort would have been alongside his British leader near the front of the peloton just as Ineos duo Tom Pidcock and Dylan van Baarle touched wheels in Stage 12, forcing the Dutchman to hit the deck while taking out Primoz Roglic, Adam Yates and a host of other big name riders.
But instead of being reduced to domestique duties, Cort was keeping his powder dry and preparing himself for a finish in which he broke the hearts of the four-man breakaway in a similar fashion to what he himself endured 24 hours earlier.
Part of a 31-man break that Carthy’s hypothetical presence would have forbade him from being in, Cort came agonisingly close to taking a second stage win on the steep and sinuous climb into Valdepenas de Jaen on Wednesday’s Stage 11. The sight of the moustachioed Dane slaloming up the home straight after Roglic and Enric Mas had led the charge past him in the closing 200 metres was one of the enduring sights so far of this Vuelta. It won him a legion of fans – just as his victory had one week earlier.
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After putting in such an effort, it seemed infeasible that Cort could have been a factor on Thursday – especially during a stage that was rode at such a ferocious pace and in such sweltering temperatures. That he was not only came down to his strength of character and ability to return to his sprinting roots, but in the belief bestowed upon him by his team – and by the stealth tactics they employed when other teams around them were burning matches and piling on the pressure.
Cort is a rider who knows his qualities and knows how best to use them. A sprinter by trade, he’s not someone who would often beat a Fabio Jakobsen or Jasper Philipsen in full swing. He needs a climb or two in there to whittle down the field, to soften the legs.
“We talked about it with the team that we wouldn’t do the big bunch sprint,” Cort said after his latest victory. “But when the group was reduced the team wants to support me in these types of stages. They whole team did a great job and I was able to sit back and relax in the first hours when people were fighting for the breakaway.”
It was, indeed, a spirited fight for the break: it took almost 80km for a move to finally stick and when it did, the eight escapees seemed doomed to failure because of the tempo being set by UAE Team Emirates on the front of the pack.
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UAE were clearly there for their man Matteo Trentin while Team BikeExchange also moved heaven and earth for their puncheur-sprinter Michael Matthews. If UAE were dictating play on the two climbs, it was BikeExchange who committed their entire team to the chase in the fast and frantic run into Cordoba.
In between, Trentin had even tried his luck by soloing clear on the descent – only to be pegged back by Astana’s Ion Izagirre before sitting up and handing the baton over to the teammates of his rival Matthews, without a win in one year and one day.
If Trentin, Matthews and Cort were the clear favourites from the reduced field of around 40 riders, they were also all distanced near the top of the Alto del 14% and needed to battle back into contention inside the final 20km.
With the breakaway still ahead with the final kilometres approaching, BikeExchange and UAE buried themselves for the cause: the sight of Jan Polanc grimacing and swaying as he dug deep from the pain cave just before the final connection said it all. Meanwhile, Cort and Keukeleire were quietly edging themselves forward and riding the coattails of the teams who needed the victory with far more urgency.
Michael Matthews (Team BikeExchange) and Matteo Trentin (UAE Team Emirates) in the finale of Stage 12 of the 2021 Vuelta a Espana
Image credit: Getty Images
“I gained confidence when I saw that Matthews and Matteo Trentin had been dropped too and I could come back with those guys,” Cort later said. “Matthews’ team were very strong pulling back the break, and then me and Jens talked through what we knew had to be done.”
When Australia’s Jay Vine became the last of the quartet to be swept up with just 200 metres remaining, it was the EF duo in day-glow pink who surged past – the Belgian slingshotting his teammate to the line, with the Danish powerhouse having enough left in the tank to hold off a late surge from Italian youngster Andrea Bagioli of Deceuninck-QuickStep.
Cort was quick to pay tribute to Keukeleire for his role in the fifth Vuelta win of his career. “He did an amazing job, and the first time he did that for me was actually here when we were teammates [at Orica-BikeExchange] and I won in Madrid in 2016. I have to thank him and all my teammates for supporting me on a day when I had tired legs from Wednesday’s stage, but I got through all the same.”
Matthews and Trentin could only take third and fourth. They must have felt as devastated as Cort one day earlier.
Cort became the fifth rider in this Vuelta to win twice following earlier braces by Jasper Philipsen, Fabio Jakobsen, Michael Storer and Roglic. By some quirk of statistics, Rein Taaramae (Stage 3) and Damiano Caruso (Stage 9) are the only single winners.
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With Cort on such good form, it would take a brave man to bet against him becoming the first of the five to secure a hat-trick – although the green jersey Jakobsen will be favourite for Friday’s flat stage to Villanueva de la Serena.
But after winning uphill and winning a reduced sprint, Cort has the versatility to complete the collection with a bunch win – especially freed from any Carthy concerns. After all, he came third the day Jakobsen opened up his account at Molina de Aragon, and is very much a rider in the ascendancy.
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Source: Euro Sports