They arrived in Madrid at pace, as if the previous 3,000km had meant nothing.
Ten laps of a circuit with a finish in the city centre brought instinct to the fore. Fatigue could wait a day longer.
Ending a Grand Tour with a crit is customary in France, but a cruel way to conclude La Vuelta, especially one as unrelentingly mountainous as this 70th edition, whose protagonists, by and large, had not been selected for their aptitude as circuit racers.
Louis Meintjes (MTN-Qhubeka) flashed past with something of a “get me out of here” expression on his face. He will race next year in the fuschia and blue of Lampre. Perhaps the Giro will beckon, instead of La Vuelta. His appointment in Madrid brought to a close his second Grand Tour of the season, aged 23, having been part of his African team’s historic first participation in the Tour de France.
Inside the barriered confines adjacent to the finish line, the atmosphere was one of gently gathering excitement. Tinkoff-Saxo CEO Stefano Feltrin mingled with guests of the Danish bank, and spent time in close conversation with its co-founder Lars Seier Christensen, and CEO in London, Matteo Cassina, both committed fans of the sport.
Saxo’s continued sponsorship of the team Oleg Tinkoff bought from Christensen’s friend Bjarne Riis has long been a subject of speculation, reignited rather than dampened by Christensen’s admission at a dinner for guests of Saxo’s Ride Like A Pro programme the previous night that nothing had yet been decided for the following season.
Feltrin told the same guests that he would not tempt fate by toasting the success of his team a day before the finish, and contented himself by raising a glass to the young leader of its Vuelta campaign, Rafal Majka, celebrating, in the most restrained fashion, his 26th birthday.
Twenty-four hours later, Feltrin was more relaxed as the peloton ticked off the laps, with Majka and his colleagues safely ensconced in its speeding mass. Tinkoff-Saxo, more than any team, had a right to remain circumspect until their riders had crossed the finish line.
“The general atmosphere in the team is that these three weeks have gone really fast,” Feltrin told me, “which is usually the case when things are working well, so for our team, despite the fact that we had those two accidents, La Vuelta has been very successful.”
Ah, yes. The two accidents: co-leader Peter Sagan run down by a motorbike from the convoy on stage eight, while Sergio Paulinho, marked as a key mountain domestique for Majka, suffered the same fate on stage 11.
Tinkoff-Saxo published an open letter jointly to Javier Gullien of race organisers Unipublic and to UCI president Brian Cookson, demanding a public apology, compensation for Tinkoff-Saxo’s loss in the form of a charitable donation, and “concrete measures” to prevent similar incidents.
Feltrin and his team also demanded that the UCI rescind a fine of 300 Swiss Francs levied against Sagan for “behaviour likely to damage the reputation of the sport” and that they complete a review of the rules governing the admission of vehicles to the race convoy, and their behaviour within it, by no later than the start of the 2016 season.
As the final stage of La Vuelta sped past, thankfully without incident, Feltrin described the handling of Sagan’s fine as “egregious” and revealed that the team had received only a partial response to its demands, and none from Cookson directly, only from the head of his road department.
“We have a very good relationship with Unipublic, who do a superb job - I think La Vuelta in the last three or four editions has been the most attractive race - and I explained to the general director of ASO that we have no issue with them. We have an issue with what happens in cycling in general. We need to make it safer and more enjoyable, not only for the rider, but also for the spectator. There is a lot to do.”
Cycling had endured a “crazy year”, he continued: Jesse Sergent (Trek) taken down by a Shimano neutral service moto at De Ronde, and, “in Italy, the fan taking out the riders,” among whom Tinkoff-Saxo leader Alberto Contador, who suffered a dislocated shoulder in the ensuing chaos, might have been counted as collateral damage.
Improvements to safety weren’t the only reform on Feltrin’s mind with La Vuelta less than 20km from completion. Tinkoff-Saxo fielded a young team in Spain: an overhaul of the sport’s structure would encourage teams to invest in developing talent, he argued, where the existing structure is a disincentive.
Jay McCarthy, the 23-year-old Australian now in his third season with Tinkoff-Saxo, might be taken as an example: instrumental to Majka’s success on the two hardest stages, including the previous day’s climb-laden epic, in which he was sent up the road in the early break to wait for Majka at the critical moment.
“We have a balance of youth and experience and you need that,” Feltrin said of his Vuelta selection. Daniele Bennati, the sprinter turned road captain, had been the eyes and ears of lead DS Tristan Hoffman on the road. Paulinho too might have brought to bear valuable experience in the mountains had it not been for his entanglement with the moto.
A podium finish from a seven-man team is some accomplishment. Had Feltrin considered it possible 10 days earlier after the loss of Sagan and Paulinho? “The goal for the team was to win stages and to be on the podium. Even if we only won one stage and got third place, we achieved the goal.”
Feltrin did not hide his satisfaction, but was restrained in his assessment of the season. Tinkoff-Saxo’s 2015 campaign has been one of “light and shade,” he said. Sure, Sagan has won here at La Vuelta, as well as at Tirreno and Suisse, and in California, but there were plenty of second places, too.
Feltrin acknowledged Sagan’s consistency, but added: “A team like ours goes for the win. You don’t go for second place.” Contador let in the light by winning the Giro, of course, but had nothing left to give at the Tour.
Third at La Vuelta, Majka could not hide his pleasure on the podium, but at the team’s post-race party, held at a rooftop restaurant on Madrid’s impressive Calle de Alcalá, cut a subdued figure, wrestling a bottle of champagne with only partial success, and leaving shortly before midnight.
The last three weeks had been a coming of age for Majka, the leader. Feltrin, for one, believes in his ability to lead the team at the Giro and La Vuelta next season. It is a subtle but significant shift in emphasis from key domestique to Contador at the Tour, and perhaps akin to Astana’s growing faith in Fabio Aru, the only man in Madrid happier than Majka.
A score out of 10 for 2015? Feltrin awarded a hypothetical eight points. “In the end, we are not enthusiastic about our season, but we are happy with the result,” he concluded. “We always strive to be better, and we hope to do better next year.”
Next year. There are discussions to be held first; agreements to be reached. Saxo Bank has long been a fixture in professional cycling’s top tier. Will it remain so? Riis has gone. Christensen and Tinkoff remain at the table. Watch this space.
Rouleur travelled to La Vuelta as a guest of Saxo Bank's Ride Like a Pro programme.