Número Uno

How a children’s card game, an inspiring tweet, and a little ‘monster’ kept the good ship EF Education First afloat at this year’s Vuelta a España.

20 September 2019

It was 6am, but Juanma Garate was already wide awake. The sports director of EF Education First Pro Cycling hadn’t been sleeping well during the first week of La Vuelta, but the previous night had been particularly fitful. His two main riders Rigoberto Urán and Hugh Carthy had just crashed out of the race on Stage 6, and he knew that another, Tejay van Garderen, was about to join them on a plane out of Spain. All of his plans were in tatters.

“I don’t write many tweets, but that day I woke up and said ‘ok I feel this’,” he says. “I sat in my bed and thought: ‘yeah it’s the moment to put everybody back on board’. The boat has a big hole, but it’s not gonna sink. ‘We’re gonna fight’, is what I said, and in the end, we fought.”

Before the crashes, before the tweet, before the fight, there was ambition. EF came with a stacked squad to support Rigo Uran’s tilt for La Vuelta title, and after the team’s success last year with two stage victories, expectations were high.

Rigo knew that this was one of his last great chances to win a grand tour at age 32 – and he readily admitted it to staff. Young Hugh Carthy had enjoyed a breakout Giro d’Italia in May, going wheel to wheel with the best climbers, and Tejay van Garderen had a sense of unfinished business for the year after crashing out of the Tour de France early.

In Garate, the team were lucky to count on a DS with 15 years of experience as a pro, and stage victories in each of the grand tours. The 43-year-old is a legend in Spanish cycling, as much for his riding exploits as for his kind and positive personality. It is felt keenly among the EF riders and employees, and was shown from day one when Juanma took the unusual step of holding the pre-race meeting with both staff and riders together.

“I was questioning myself why teams do these meetings separately,” he says. “I really wanted to let the staff know what we were planning to do in the race. We made a big circle with chairs and everybody was looking to each other, talking about our goals. I wanted to tell Hugh, Dani, Sergio, everyone, their roles but I wanted to do it in front of the staff because we are together. We win together and we lose together.”

Such an idea is perhaps unsurprising given that Juanma retired in 2014 citing ‘mental health’ reasons after his Belkin team ostracised him for the entire year following a workers’ rights dispute. He is a thoughtful man with a strong sense of right and wrong, and his road captain at La Vuelta, Mitch Docker, is proud to work alongside him:

“He breeds inspiration in us, and he thinks about what he wants to say at the right time. He’s just a great leader, and someone I look up to and aspire to be. When I’m trying to work something out or do something I don’t want to, I think back to a guy like Juanma and that’s what I want to be like.”

Despite a strong 4th place in the opening day’s team time trial amid the salt lagoons of Torrevieja, a portent of EF Education First’s luck to come appeared when Rigo crashed twice in stage four. He escaped unscathed, but two days later wasn’t so lucky. On a fast downhill, wheels slipped and the bunch piled up, ripped and tattered on the tarmac.

“I was the first one to arrive at the scene, and wow… it wasn’t nice,” says Juanma. “I saw pink jerseys everywhere. Rigo was on the ground, totally white, but then I looked back and I saw Hugh Carthy sitting on a fence… He was just... bad. I went to him directly because Rigo was with the doctors. The first thing that Hugh said to me was ‘sorry’. To me! I said ‘oh my god man, don’t be silly’. I saw straight away that he had broken his collarbone. My work was to keep him calm, let him know that his race was finished. ‘Relax, it’s over, your collarbone is broken. The ambulance is here, you’ll be fine.’”

Rigo was seriously injured, suffering a fractured shoulder blade, several broken ribs and a punctured left lung, as well as a fractured left collarbone. He was in surgery for seven hours, and remains in hospital now, three weeks later. “Life and the bike have inflicted heavy blows on me but none like this," he wrote on Instagram.

With Rigo and Hugh out, and Grand Tour debutants Sergio Higuita and Logan Owen also having crashed, Juanma attempted to focus back on the race: Tejay van Garderen was up the road in the stage-winning breakaway. But with 20 kilometres left, “we heard on the radio: ‘crash in the breakaway’. I said to the mechanic… ‘oh my god… surely not?’ And then we heard ‘EF’…”

The American had overcooked a bend on the descent to the line, crashing upside down in a bush with a broken finger. He soldiered on to finish as the last man home, going from the front to the back, 24 minutes behind the stage winner. Shortly after starting the following day’s stage, he pulled out of the race and the EF squad was down to five.

“It was a really tough blow. Mentally we were just like: ‘what do we do now?’ We were all here to help those guys,’” says Logan Owen. The team’s new Colombian sensation Sergio Higuita was riding strongly on the climbs so a top ten on GC wasn’t out of the question, and the rest of the squad were free to fight for a breakaway stage win, but fighting with five is harder than with eight.

“Juanma and I really tried to keep the spirit up, but several times we had to ask each other: is the damage too much?,” says fellow DS Ken Vanmarcke. “It was as if we were driving a bus that had lost two wheels and we were still trying to win on two wheels. We kept on believing, but after two and a half weeks you say the same thing over and over to the riders. You’re scared that there’s a time when they won’t believe you anymore. But actually they kept on believing in us, and they kept on trying. And that’s the most beautiful part of it.”

The seeds of something special had been sown at the Tour de Suisse. Mitch was racing there in June, and the chat at the dinner table was all about selection for the upcoming Tour de France. It was tense. Heading into an EF Tour pre-selection camp the following week, he wanted to find something to take the edge off and keep the team together.

“As I was leaving the house I saw the deck of UNO there – ‘hang on, this might work!’. On the first night everyone was a bit sceptical, but once I dragged them all out and we played a massive game, everyone loved it.”

Mitch didn’t make the final eight for Le Tour, but ever magnanimous, he encouraged the team to play in France. Tejay took a pack and a team tradition was born. “On the first night at the Vuelta, Rigo said, ‘are we gonna play UNO?’ So we played,” says Mitch.

Juanma was shocked at the sight of his riders talking and laughing together like this every night: “The first time I saw them playing together, I wanted to cry. I was so emotional, I thought ‘what are they doing?’. It’s something I’ve never seen since I started as a rider almost 20 years ago. They were not using their phones. They were sitting together, playing cards every night after dinner. Wow.”

The physical and mental demands of a three-week grand tour are not to be understated. As the stages ticked off, and things didn’t go EF’s way, the simplicity of UNO – which is supposed to be a children’s game – became a nightly reset, a team-building device, and a way to keep believing. “It’s brought us together, and allowed us to relax, not talking about the race, while having a laugh, and some healthy competition,” says Mitch. “The joke is that playing UNO with eight guys is not that good because it takes so long! Five is the perfect number to play cards. We can get five rounds in, easy!”

Sergio Higuita agrees: “playing UNO is the most important team meeting each day! But every day I lose. I’m not lucky with this game… I try and I try, I’m very focused, but I don’t understand why I’m so bad!”

He might be bad at cards, but the Colombian is good at bike racing. After a frustrating race of near misses – Lawson Craddock’s fourth place in the time trial on Stage 10 and third from the breakaway the next day among them – the pressure pot was beginning to boil over for the team. Despite Higuita losing his high GC position on the already infamous crosswind stage, Juanma saw that his young charge was still strong and made his play. A tough team meeting before stage 18 set the tone.

“We were clacked out,” says Mitch. “Stage 18, can’t make any breaks, and the typical speech from the director would just be ‘come on guys’, but Juanma had saved, in UNO terms, the ‘Draw 4’ up his sleeve and he just laid it out, ‘wham’. He said to Sergio and Dani: ‘guys, today has to be your day. A stage win will change your life’. And it hit me too. I thought ‘f*ck, it could. I need to step it up as well.’”

Four climbs were on the cards, and a strong breakaway including INEOS’ Wout Poels and Tao Geogheghan Hart had already formed by the first climb. Higuita was in it too. “We were all just pumped when we heard that Serge was in the breakaway! That was a win in itself right there,” says Logan Owen.

The Colombian took on the responsibility of encouraging his fellow breakaway riders to work together, to not have doubts and to take risks. His rapidly improving English – which he studies on his computer with the EF English Live course – helped: “hey, come on, let’s work together, it’s important today.”

By the third climb of the day, the attacks were flying, and Sergio found himself following with ease. “I saw that I had good legs so I thought ‘wow, ok this is my day’. I told myself that I needed to fight, to struggle, to take risks. There’s no other day. Just today,” he says. Behind in the bunch, Astana had started pulling to reduce the gap and with Juanma’s encouragement, Sergio made his move, sprinting over the top of the climb and into the descent.

There were still more than 40km to go, including the final category one climb up the Puerto de Navacerrada. Fortunately, Sergio had ridden here before at the Vuelta a Madrid and used his knowledge to take risks on the downhill, increasing his advantage to 1min30 at one point. He time trialled up the final climb, cresting the summit with just 40 seconds over an elite chasing group that included the Slovenian stars of the race Primož Roglič and Tadej Pogačar.

“In the final kilometres, my advantage was going down, as was my strength. But I kept going. I was concentrated on giving my best. Lots of things flashed through my mind: my family, my girlfriend, the dreams we have together. In the end, I found strength where I didn’t have any, through spirit, and I achieved the victory,” he says.

While Juanma immediately phoned Tejay, Rigo and Hugh to share in the moment of joy and the EF staff celebrated before the podium presentation, the grupetto of dropped riders still racing included all four of Sergio’s teammates. “When we found out, we just lost it, started celebrating,” says Logan Owen. “It was perfect timing because we were at the top of the final descent. We all started kind of tearing up on the way down.”

“I’m delighted to have won the stage, because I made a lot of people happy,” says Sergio. “Not just in Colombia and in my family, but the whole team. We’d been trying so hard together to overcome the difficult moments, and today is something beautiful because everyone is happy and enjoying themselves. The happiness of others is something that fills me with joy.”

Juanma is certainly enchanted with the man that team principal Jonathan Vaughters has nicknamed ‘Higuita Monster’: “The Monster, the Monster! Ah, it’s so easy to work with this guy. He’s so professional. I’m really surprised that at just 22 years old he’s on top of every detail. He has everything clear in his mind. In Spanish I always say to him, ‘you’re under the spell of the magic wand’. He can sprint and he can climb, so he can get to the finish in a small group and win. I joke with him that he’s our little Valverde.”

Sergio responds to all of Juanma’s requests over the radio with an extremely polite ‘Si señor, gracias señor’, but by the end of the race in Madrid he was the one being thanked. His life has changed forever. In the sunset and serenity of a Grand Tour finish, Higuita was cheered to the rafters by both Spanish and Colombian fans enamoured with his style of racing and character. Interviews, selfies, screaming – he was the last to arrive back to the bus to celebrate the end of the race with his team mates.

Juanma Garate was smiling. “We needed it. We couldn’t have finished the Vuelta without a success,” he says. “I’m so proud of them. So proud of them. They did everything. It didn’t cost me anything to keep the morale high. I think honestly the key is that game they played every night. It might sound stupid, but it’s exactly what I think.”

Sergio might have kept the good ship EF afloat with his stage victory, but his toughest performance of La Vuelta was still to come that Sunday evening in Madrid. His penalty for being the worst UNO player? To stand up in front of all the riders and staff at dinner and sing a song.

‘Everybody now... Uno, dos, tres, cuatro…’