June 26, 2021, marked quickest turn-around between two consecutive races in the history of the Tour de France. Perhaps a rushed training schedule coupled with global excitement and anticipation of a return to normalcy, topped off with the unfathomable pressure to perform, marshalled the storm of chaos that ensued in the opening days of the TDF, 2021.
Aboard their trusted steeds of finally tuned, race prepared Cannondale bicycles and emblazoned in pink and navy, Team EF Education-NIPPO was not exempt from the angst and demands that the Tour commands. However, they were ready, confident in their individual preparation, but exponentially so in their collective team reliance. Ask any member ‘Why EF?,’ and the unanimous response will be ‘family.’ Despite their diversity in geographic allegiance, there’s a palpable bond in EF-NIPPO that has amassed a global fan base.
Accompanying the team’s diversity in nationalities is a rivaled array of riding talents. Three of the eight team riders were gracing the Tour for the first time. Their perceptible aura of excitement dispersed to the remaining five veterans of the Tour roster making it just a bit more special for all. In his eighth appearance of at the Tour, Rigoberto Urán is lauded as the team’s leader with a placid demeanor, that starkly contrasts with his energetic riding style. With the unwavering support of his team, Rigo himself remained quietly confident, as a dark-horse contender of the Tour.
After the ceremonial unveiling of the new Tour kits across the peloton and the ensuing pre-race hype, the peloton of the 2021 Tour de France finally rolled out from Brest to northwestern France. The entirety of the team and its sports directors were in sync in their objectives, preparation and camaraderie. Executing their game plan and adapting early to volatilities in the race resulted in Sergio Higuita finishing in 8th place for the first and second stages of the Tour. Team EF-NIPPO methodically pressed on.
Perched in the saddle of the savagely fast and brilliantly simple Cannondale TT machine (we are not confirming the name just yet on the new TT bike), four members of the team eclipsed the top 20 in a field of over 177 athletes. The results found Magnus Cort finishing in 12th, Rigoberto Uran 13th, Stefan Bissegger 18th, and Neilson Powless coming in at 19th.
Morale was high and smiles were abundant as the team entered the long, hilly course of seventh stage of the Tour in the 2nd position of the Teams Classification. Magnus Cort made a statement in Le Creusot, putting his climbing prowess and iconic mustache on full display as he crossed the line in 3rd overall thus concluding a fine week for the team of underdogs.
Heading into the second week, the team vibrations were set on ‘high.’ Fully supporting their humble leader, EF-NIPPO elevated Rigo into the 3rd spot in the overall GC by the end of the ninth stage. The next day would be a well-earned rest day for the band of underrated brothers in pink. A day well spent recovering, sharing individual experiences and perspectives from each of their unique vantage points of a tumultuous first third of the race.
In a spectacular showcase of teamwork by Magnus Cort, and a powerful performance by the rest of the squad, the team was able to protect their leader through the entire tenth stage. The Colombian (Uran) remained in 3rd in the overall GC. The climbers readied their legs, restored their glycogen, and re-hashed their captain protection plan, as they prepared to encounter the looming double-ascent of Mont Ventoux on stage eleven. Type 2, maybe even type 3 ‘fun’ would be unanimously enjoyed as a post-stage side effect for most of the field. But not for team EF, you’d find them bearing grins in anticipation of all that accompanied the daunting task of ascending Ventoux twice: long miles, steep grades, little rings and big cogs, big rings and little cogs, rinse and repeat. That’s the thing about our unique band of heroes; come shine, rain, hail, road rash, crash, win or lose, you’d be hard pressed to catch them without a smile or visible ambiance of stoke. All relishing the opportunity to ride such topography at the highest stage, together in fellowship.
Number 111 would go on to embrace the sufferfest with an insatiable appetite for ascension. With the support of his troupe, Rigoberto Urán would finish 5th at stage eleven, putting him in 2nd of the overall GC when the sun settled on July 7th, 2021. Massive individual efforts, and working together like the warriors of Sparta, the team formed a phalanx that would protect Rigo through stage twelve and thirteen, keeping him in number 2 in the General Classification.
The first stage of the third week would mark the fourteenth of the tour with a long stretch of mountainous pavement spanning from Carcassone to Quillan. On this day the team was full of vigor and conviction. In particular, Sergio Higuita, who is always consistent in contribution to the team’s ability to succeed as a whole, had an individual performance for the ages in the Pyrenean foothills. After a hellish day of climbing, Higuita sprinted for a 3rd place overall finish. The masterful performance by the young Colombian further strengthened the team’s foothold in the number two spot of the Teams Classification.
The race is exhausting, despite the grins, the positive vibes and stoicism of the team in pink, they were feeling the byproduct of thousands of km’s in distance and elevation garnered in the past two and half weeks. But you almost wouldn’t know it. Passively approached by a young girl, adorned in a pint-sized EF jersey, she shyly asks Rigoberto Urán for an autograph. With a beam that could only be confined by a medical mask, Rigo gladly obliged the tyke with mutual admiration. Who knows; now that the Tour organizers have come to their senses and sanctioned a women’s event, perhaps this little one will grace the podium in Paris in monumental years to come?
Armored with a focus to bring the GC placing home, the team was ready for the final rounds of the bout. Always ready for a fight, and a fight is what they got. Despite their valiant efforts, after stage 17, we found our leader dropping 2 places to 4th overall in the General Classification. The mild shakeup did nothing but amp the team up to showcase the distinction they knew they were capable of.
Enter stage eighteen, where we found our hero with unbreakable fortitude. But sometimes our bodies are in woeful opposition of our intentions, no matter how impenetrable they may seem. Rigoberto started seemingly strong, only to find himself distanced from the lead-pack on the Col du Tourmalet. But in these moments, is when our gang in fuchsia would show their true character. In good times and in bad, team EF had each other’s backs, and it was time to act. With actions of encouragement, and verbal affirmation that it was “OK” and that ‘we are with you, brother!’ the team banded together to support their captain. Equal encouragement was given to Sergio Higuita as he was feeling primed to finish the mountainous stage strong. An always grinning Higuita surged on the climbs and raced into the 7th spot of the overall finishers atop Luz Ardiden. Regardless of the noble measures of the team to propel Rigo, number 111 finished in 43rd place, moving into the 10th spot of the GC.
Needless to say, the evening of the 15th, of July found Rigo with a bit of a tattered heart. But you’d never know it. See the pictures below of Rigo and his teammate as he readied for the nineteenth stage, nine spots removed from everything he had worked his entire life for.
Geared up for the second individual time-trial, one would think all hope was lost for our lionhearts. But this is where they knew they were strong, further drafting energy from the fulfillment of being a part of an unbreakable unit.
Piloting the cockpit of their race-ready TT Cannondale’s, we’d find our team at stage twenty ready to challenge some of the best time trialists in the world. Cruising at an average speed of over 50kph/31mph from Libourne to St. Emillion; with rounded backs, heads down, eyes up and stout hearts, two of our teammates touched down within the top ten of the overall finish.
On the final day of arguably the most trying and difficult sporting event in the history of mankind, our team remains intact. Our band of virtuous underdogs is in high spirits. And while the overall individual GC might not be within reach, the podium of the Teams Classifications was all but solidified, barring unforeseen catastrophe. Drawing from every drop of glycogen left in his bronzed and beaten legs, Jonas Rutsch would start an early break on Champs Elysees. Followed closely by an energized Stefan Bissegger taking the reins, and then Michael Valgren with the last attempt for glory only to be overtaken by the roaming swarm of the peloton.
Rigoberto Urán held court at 10th place of the overall GC after his fall from favor in the Pyrenees. But in his final moment of 2021, his true character was unearthed and revealed.
"It’s almost unique that a leader in Rigo’s position buys into the principle of allowing his teammates the kind of freedom that he did. I was pleased to see the guys take that with both hands. The disappointment that happened in the Pyrenees is a part of sport. It's part of life. This is a real team, and I’m extremely proud of it." - Charly Wegelius, Sport Director
At the closing ceremonies of the 108th Tour de France you may not have found a lone member team Education First atop a spot of the GC Podium. But what you would have found is the entirety of Team EF Education-NIPPO; 2nd place and paid in full with hard work and perseverance, riddled with road rash mixed with gravel and lycra fibers. Having shed blood, sweat and tears of joy, and fighting for every last inch of road until the very end in Paris, they dismounted their broken-in fleet of Cannondale’s for the final time. Forever bonded by their shared experience of racing 3,414 kilometres (2,121 miles) of gloriously grueling blacktop sprawled across the country of France, each member of Team EF-NIPPO would cross that final line in Champs-Élysées with pride.
"The Tour de France is complicated and in the end, we’re human. The only thing you can do is finish well, honor your teammates, and prepare yourself for the next race."
-Rigoberto Urán after his finish in the 10th spot of the General Classification in the 2021 Tour de France.