© Jayco-AlUla

Matteo Sobrero, Felix Engelhardt and Jan Maas finished the Vuelta a España in Madrid

'Pure mind games' – How Jayco-AlUla's last trio standing survived the Vuelta a España

Matteo Sobrero, Felix Engelhardt and Jan Maas arrive in Madrid with lessons of mental and physical survival

ClockUpdated 22:00, Sunday 17th September 2023. Published 21:10, Sunday 17th September 2023

At the finish line of stage 18 of the Vuelta a España, atop the Cruz de Linares climb, only a few people were looking for the final rider across the line, Jan Maas: his Jayco-AlUla soigneur, a Spanish policeman making sure the road was clear, and me.

When the final rider is a big name sprinter fighting to make the time cut, it’s a story. When it’s a 27-year-old from the Netherlands who is just trying to finish his first Grand Tour, the moment goes unnoticed.

Grimacing in discomfort and clearly tired, Maas completed the stage in 149th place, dead last - just as he did the day before on the Angliru - 35 minutes down on the winner and close to being cut from the race. But once again, he got through to fight another day.

Last place eventually became familiar, and he would come in as the final man another two times, including on stage 21 in Madrid.

"I really need these few days to survive," Maas had told me before embarking on the challenging final week, all too aware of what was to come.

Whilst a handful of riders are racing this Vuelta to win, countless others are just trying to get through, to finish every day, to arrive in Madrid in one piece. No team knows this better than Jayco AlUla, who have lost riders in every phase of the race, and rolled into Madrid on Sunday with just three men.

It’s not been their best Grand Tour yet, but they’ve made it, they’ve survived, and this is how they got here.

The last men standing

Arriving into the paddock in Liencres for the start of stage 16, the outside of the Jayco-AlUla team bus was a quiet affair. Most team buses arrived with a throng of cars, set up lots of bikes, and had a melée of staff and media milling around as the riders got ready for the stage.

At the Jayco bus, a lone mechanic set out just three bike stands, and duly set out three Giant bikes, hardly even encroaching on the free space under the team’s canopy. Going into the final week, only a trio of Jayco-AlUla riders remained in the race after several crashes, bouts of illness, and a good dose of bad luck had decimated the eight-man team.

Matteo Sobrero, Jan Maas and Felix Engelhardt are the only three that survived, two Grand Tour debutants in Maas and Engelhardt, and Sobrero riding his first Vuelta after three starts at the Giro. The squad Jayco started with was not the most experienced in the race, but was soon reduced to some of its freshest Grand Tour riders, with those who did have some expertise sidelined early.

The misfortune started on the very first day of the race, when Jayco-AlUla were one of the multiple teams who crashed during the wet, sketchy opening team time trial in Barcelona. Theirs was one of the worst, seeing six out of eight of their riders all go down on a slippery corner.

“Starting your first Grand Tour after three kilometres with a six-man crash, that wasn’t the best of starts,” Maas says, with a dose of Dutch understatement. “But we picked ourselves up.”

Pick themselves up they did, but the bad luck didn’t stop there. The effects of the crash and following ones saw Eddie Dunbar and Filippo Zana, two of their best climbing hopes, abandon on stage 5, followed by veteran Michael Hepburn on stage 6, meaning they finished the first week already three riders down.

Illness ended Callum Scotson’s race on stage 13, and it was Covid that derailed Welay Berhe’s Vuelta on the second rest day. Sobrero took second place on stage 9, behind Lennard Kämna, but other than that, the Australian team’s race has been a quiet one.

Even on Tuesday, embarking on the final week of the race, the remaining riders were not tip-top; Maas had a rib that he thinks is broken, or at least bruised; Engelhardt was suffering from a crash earlier in the race; Sobrero was pushing on through illness. They had avoided the race-ending injuries and sickness that have taken out the rest of their team, but that didn’t mean they were a trio in full strength.

“It’s been a tough two weeks,” Maas surmised. “I think everyone knows what our team has been up to the last two weeks, myself included. But it’s a really nice race, it’s exactly what I expected from the Vuelta, from a Grand Tour - to be hard.”

Keeping spirits high

How do you get through a race with only three riders, when ambitions of success quickly turn into hopes of just surviving?

When there’s little positivity to be found in the racing, it turns to the riders to make their own positive atmosphere. By all accounts, despite the bad luck, the vibes in the team have been good, the staff have been relaxed, and the three young riders have kept their spirits high.

“We have a really good atmosphere,” Maas said. “I can also make a lot of jokes myself and we have plenty of jokes and humour in the bus, at the dinner table, the breakfast table. That is for me a really important thing - the suffering we leave only on the bike.

“I try to enjoy every day. We have a really good group with the three riders left, but also really supportive and nice staff. I think that helps a lot, and keeps the spirit high.”

Whilst it’s been largely physical problems that have blighted, it’s the mental challenge that has perhaps been hardest for the remaining riders in the Jayco team.

“The mental side [is harder]. It’s pure mind games,” Maas said. “That’s really what the older, more experienced guys say to me: it’s mind games. At this stage 16 where we are today, everybody feels their legs - there’s probably a guy in another team who has fallen on his knee, another one who hasn’t slept well, everybody has something. So it’s your own war that we all have in our own heads. It’s about how you deal with it.”

Without their more experienced teammates out of the race, it’s been down to Sobrero - far from a veteran himself - to try and guide Engelhardt and Maas through their first Grand Tour, and one of the hardest challenges that professional cycling can offer.

“I tried to give them some tips,” he said. “I’m not the oldest guy in the team, but for my experience, this is my fourth Grand Tour, so I tried to say to the guys that when we have three guys left, you have to save as much energy as possible and use it when you need it the most.”

Making the best of the last week

Maas’ third week didn’t get much better; he finished dead last four times, the greatest success being making the time cut on some painfully hard stages. Engelhardt was more consistent, but still without the legs to go in the break. And so once again, responsibility fell to Sobrero, and he duly delivered on stage 20.

It wasn’t the most successful day out in the end, with Sobrero finishing behind the peloton as the strongest riders from the breakaway survived to the line, but just being there was a boost for a team who have struggled to do that in the latter half of this race.

“Already for me just to get into the break was hard,” Sobrero said after stage 20. “I felt already that it was not my day today. So I tried my best but the pace was too hard for me. I’m coming back from some sickness, I’m taking antibiotics, so I’m not 100% but at least I tried. We are just three guys, so for me it was good to fight until the end.

“I was the only guy in the team that was feeling good. Jan has a broken rib, and also Felix is coming back from a big crash so was not feeling good. But I tried to keep up the morale."

As a rider who has won a stage in the Giro d’Italia, just getting round or going in breakaways is not necessarily what Sobrero came here for, but one of the results of having such a hard race as a team is that expectations change, and small victories grow in importance. As Maas explained, it becomes about appreciating the race day by day.

“I was hoping for more,” Sobrero admitted. “I had a second place that was really close to the win, but also with three guys it’s never easy to fight with other teams with eight guys. But I’m quite happy too. For sure it was not an easy Vuelta for our team so we tried our best.”

‘Not easy’ is perhaps an understatement to describe the events of the last three weeks for Jayco-AlUla. It’s been a hard test, in one of the hardest Vueltas of recent times, but today it comes to an end. With some bruised bodies and tired minds, yes, but also with three riders who have learned how to survive the toughest situations, and how to make the most out of a difficult race.

Keep up to date with all of the latest racing news from the Vuelta a España on our dedicated race page, linked here.

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