Movistar go into this year's Tour de France as the only team with three riders capable of winning the yellow jersey, in Nairo Quintana, Alejandro Valverde and Mikel Landa. But if they are to win, they need to finely balance internal rivalry while still ma
Movistar go to this year’s Tour with three GC leaders in their team. Will it work?
The good, and bad news for Movistar is that they are going to start the Tour de France with three riders who could win the yellow jersey. Most teams are operating a singleleader strategy, like Sky with Chris Froome or Ag2r with Romain Bardet. At best, some, like Mitchelton-Scott with Adam Yates and Caleb Ewan or Katusha with Ilnur Zakarin and Marcel Kittel, have a GC and a sprint leader, but one of the striking factors about the 2018 Tour is the dearth of two-pronged GC assaults. Which brings us to what could possibly be the bad news for Movistar – that their three ambitious Tour stars – Nairo Quintana, Alejandro Valverde and Mikel Landa – could easily spend more energy fighting each other than their rivals. The strategy is either a masterstroke by Movistar chief Eusebio Unzué, or a big risk.
Since 2013, riders have tried and failed to beat Froome in hand-to-hand combat. Quintana was a distant second to the Brit in 2013. He got closer in 2015, but was always playing catchup following Froome’s spectacular attack at La Pierre Saint-Martin in the Pyrenees. In 2016, Bardet was Froome’s equal in the mountains, but conceded large chunks of time in the time trials. And last year, Rigoberto Urán became the only rider to finish within a minute of Froome at the Tour, but there was no real point in the race where he looked like being able to put time into the Brit.
It’s possible that Unzué has concluded that there’s little point in putting Quintana up against Froome after four years of trying. However, if Quintana, Landa and Valverde can work together, they could succeed where individuals have failed. The plan wouldn’t be to replicate Sky’s mountain train – that would just play into Froome’s hands by doing his team’s work for him, and all he would have to do is follow, then beat whichever Movistar rider is highest up overall in the final time trial on stage 20. But if Movistar are prepared to initiate guerrilla warfare, they may succeed. We’ve had a sneak preview of this tactic. In 2013, when Froome was already in the yellow jersey after Ax-3-Domaines, Movistar helped to tear the race to shreds on the second Pyrenean stage to Bagnères-de-Bigorre. Their attacking riding, along with that of GarminSharp, isolated Froome from his team-mates early. The problem was, they were
so intent on distancing Sky’s Richie Porte that they forgot that they were in a position to gang up on Froome. He laid low in the lead group and none of the three Movistar riders gained time on him.
To succeed in this tactic in 2018, their main obstacles are Froome, and then Team Sky. Sky’s mountain train has been so strong in the last six years that it’s very difficult to attack them. When one or two of the four or five strongest climbers in the race – Landa and Micha¯ Kwiatkowski last year, Wout Poels in 2016, Geraint Thomas in 2015, Porte in 2013 – is pacing the lead group, it stands to reason that only a few riders can hope to attack. However, Quintana is a former Tour runner-up, Valverde a third-place finisher and Landa’s best so far is fourth. And when Landa jumped ship from Sky to Movistar, he weakened Sky and strengthened Movistar.
Movistar might be well advised to learn from what happened at the recent Giro d’Italia. Long-range attacks which win the GC in a three-week race have been rare for decades, but they have a hundred per cent success rate in 2018 so far, with Froome’s success in Italy. This approach is risky with a single leader, but Movistar arguably have expendable leaders, and that gives them more options – if one of their leaders goes for a long one and fails, they still have options. It wouldn’t be all or nothing. However, if it was a clear advantage to have three GC leaders, all the teams would do it. The payoff is that there are fewer domestiques, and this is exacerbated in 2018, with the teams reduced to eight riders. Movistar can only have five more riders. Bearing in mind there is a team time trial, seven flat stages and then the cobbled stage before the first rest day, do they have
Quintana will feel that he is the rightful leader and Landa has already been frustrated at having to wait his turn at Sky
the personnel to cover the opening phase, as well as offer support to their leaders in the mountains? C ycling has a long and storied history of leaders turning on each other. Movistar can even look at Froome and Sky for a classic of the genre – the 2012 Tour. Froome visibly chafed under the leadership of Bradley Wiggins, openly attacking him in the Alps and Pyrenees before reluctantly sitting up. The rivalry kept an otherwise moribund Tour alive, but there wasn’t really any significant jeopardy for the team itself – first and second place were so safely wrapped up that even if Froome had overtaken Wiggins and won the race it wouldn’t have been a disaster.
The 1987 rivalry between Stephen Roche and Roberto Visentini at the Giro d’Italia was potentially more damaging. Visentini led Roche by 2:42 before the infamous Sappada stage, with Tony Rominger another 30 seconds behind and only two more riders within five minutes. When Roche attacked, Visentini was left minutes behind and the Irishman only took the race lead by five seconds, plus there were now 10 riders within five minutes of him – a considerably weaker position for the team, mitigated when Roche ended up winning the race.
Movistar might prefer to look towards the 1986 La Vie Claire team for a more successful example of strength in numbers. Overall winner Greg LeMond and runner-up Bernard Hinault might have been at each other’s throats for most of the race, but the team ended up with five riders in the top 12, including three in the top four. But there are also less successful examples: PDM put four riders in the top 10 in 1989, and none on the podium.
The cycling world might anticipate friction between Movistar’s leaders, but the same team has dealt with internal rivalry in the past. Their 1988 Tour winner Pedro Delgado was starting to look past his best by 1990, and Miguel Indurain looked stronger. However, the team managed to keep Indurain onside and riding for Delgado that year before he took the first of his five wins in 1991.
Yet this year, Valverde won’t want to lose one of his last chances to go for the yellow jersey, Quintana will feel that he is the rightful leader and Landa has already been frustrated at having to wait his turn at Sky. It’s going to be a tricky juggling act.
Valverde has been as strong as ever this year and won nine races by June
Landa swapped Sky for Movistar last winter to get out from Froome's shadow
Quintana has been on the Tour podium three times and now, in his peak, wants a victory
With three leaders at their disposal, Movistar can a ford to go on the attack and use aggressive tactics to put other riders and teams under pressure, particularly in the mountains