Cian Uijtdebroeks impresses but Bora-Hansgrohe wanted more from Vuelta a España

‘Podium was a different ball-game’ says DS Bernie Eisel as team come away with stage win and two riders in GC top 10

Clock09:07, Friday 22nd September 2023
Cian Uijtdebroeks was the focus of much of the attention on Bora-Hansgrohe during the Vuelta a España

© Velo Collection (TDW) / Getty Images

Cian Uijtdebroeks was the focus of much of the attention on Bora-Hansgrohe during the Vuelta a España

A stage win, two riders in the top 10 overall, and an eighth-place finish for a prodigious Grand Tour debutant would normally be a very good way to finish the Vuelta a España. But for Bora-Hansgrohe, who came close to achieving more, there was something left to be desired when they arrived in Madrid.

Speaking exclusively to GCN after the final stage on Sunday, assistant sports director and former pro Bernie Eisel was full of praise for rising Belgian star Cian Uijtdebroeks, who grabbed the attention of many during the Vuelta, but hesitated to call their race a complete success.

“It was pretty good, but still we hope for more,” was Eisel’s initial assessment, reflecting the big ambitions of the team who won a stage through Lennard Kämna, and finished seventh and eighth overall with Aleksandr Vlasov and Uijtdebroeks.

Stage 21 in Madrid seemed almost emblematic of the team’s race: key players in the winning breakaway, always part of the racing, but still missing out on the win to bigger stars.

“Pretty much every day was like today,” Eisel said. “We were there, it was just missing finishing it off, missing that final part.”

Despite finishing seventh and eighth on GC, Eisel is right that Vlasov and Uijtdebroeks slightly ghosted into the top 10. They were results based on quiet consistency, rather than a big stage win or stand-out performance on a certain day.

And whilst it might be those podium-topping moments that teams strive for, there was plenty for Bora to be happy about, and also a lot to learn about why that final part was missing.

Uijtdebroeks impresses on debut

Though it was Vlasov who ended up finishing higher on GC, arguably more attention was paid to Cian Uijtdebroeks, the 20-year-old making his Grand Tour debut in Spain. The Belgian, who won the Tour de l’Avenir in 2022, has been tipped for Grand Tour greatness, so his first attempt at three-week racing was going to be important.

In some ways, Uijtdebroeks’ performance defied the norms of a Grand Tour debut; there was no big breakout stage or victory, but nor did he have a big blow-up, finding the fatigue of three-week racing catching up with his young legs.

Instead, the Belgian had the consistency and good fortune most GC riders would wish for, sailing into the top 10 by riding well for the whole race. And though Bora may have been hoping for a more exciting takeaway for Uijtdebroeks, finishing eighth on debut is not a result to be overlooked.

“It’s my first Grand Tour and already a top 10, it’s incredible,” he said after stage 21. “It’s great to already start like this, and if I keep improving then I hope one day I can fight for the podium."

“I’m very impressed,” Eisel said of Uijtdebroeks. “With the dedication, with everything he gave to be here at this level, it was already impressive but also to keep doing it. Because in modern cycling, you won’t give a young rider or a GC rider a bad day. It’s not acceptable, for a GC rider nowadays, you can’t have a bad day.

"But for us with Cian it was clear: if he has a bad day, he has a bad day, and he goes back and goes for a stage win. But he was solid through three weeks, and that was very impressive.”

As well as his performance on the bike, Uijtdebroeks mentally managed his first Grand Tour better than some might, always a bright and happy presence, both in front of the media and within the team.

“It’s not only work ethic, it also comes down to good mood,” Eisel said. “And that’s just him. You can chat with him about everything, and that’s why we had absolute great fun the whole Vuelta.”

The only thing that slightly mired Bora’s GC achievement was the story that swirled around the final weekend of some discord between Uijtdebroeks and Vlasov - yet another case in this Vuelta of the trickiness of managing multiple GC hopes, especially when one rider does better than expected.

But by the time the race rolled into Madrid, any stirs of discontent seemed to have faded.

“Inside of the team there is really no big issue or something,” Uijtdebroeks told GCN. “All is good from that side. For sure sometimes you have a bit of competition in the team, like we saw also with other teams, but everything is good between us.”

Racing against Jumbo-Visma dominance

Why didn’t Bora-Hansgrohe quite achieve what they wanted, then? As many teams pointed out during the race, this Vuelta was a controlled one, with fewer chances for breakaways - or at least, breakaways not including Remco Evenepoel - and only scattered chances for GC riders to make a difference, which Bora perhaps didn’t make the most of.

“We definitely missed out on stage 6 when Sepp Kuss and [Marc] Soler took the time,” Eisel explained. “So we were on the back foot then. We had to chase back time on several opponents, and we did, but still not enough to really get closer to the top five or even the podium. And from then on, it was a controlled race.”

With that control being exerted by a team as strong as Jumbo-Visma, it was hard for anyone - be that Bora, UAE Team Emirates or Bahrain-Victorious - to crack their firm grip as they locked out the entire podium.

“I think power-wise and everything, it was a different ballgame for the podium at the moment,” Eisel said, hinting at the level the Dutch team are on. Several teams, including Bora, brought more than one strong GC rider to the Vuelta, but still couldn’t get close.

“If they keep bringing these three or four guys, then you can just give up. It’s honest, what can you do?” Eisel said, half joking but half not. “But I think if we had been on the break on stage 6 or some other GC riders in there, it would have opened up the race, and it would probably not be as good for Sepp Kuss, for the rest it would have been a more open race, more attacks.

“But you always have to play with what you have, what you can do, what you can reach, and when. For me, stage 6 was the key to this Vuelta and we just missed out there, so let’s go back to the drawing book.”

And so back to the planning room it may be for Bora-Hansgrohe, but there are still a whole host of positive lessons they’ll take from this race. They have a promising Grand Tour rider of the future in Cian Uijtdebroeks, they’re proving they can be a serious GC team, and they have strong riders capable of winning the hardest stages.

Given a chance in a race not dominated by one super team, we should expect Bora to become one of the big GC teams of the next seasons, especially if they can keep Uijtdebroeks in their colours.

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