FEA­TURE: MO­VIS­TAR MIS­FIRE

Mo­vis­tar en­tered 2018 with three top lead­ers and the aim of chal­leng­ing Sky for stage race dom­i­na­tion. In the end, not one of them made the podium of any grand tour. Pro­cy­cling looks into rea­sons for the Mo­vis­tar flop

Procycling - - CONTENTS - Writer: Fran Reyes Pho­tog­ra­phy: Getty Images

Three grand tours, three star lead­ers: where did it all go wrong for Mo­vis­tar in 2018?

Atop the La­gos de Co­vadonga climb, Euse­bio Unzué seemed un­set­tled. The usu­ally calm man­ager and team owner pre­sented a quite un­usual state of ag­i­ta­tion: in­stead of giv­ing the me­dia a sober anal­y­sis of the stage, he was giv­ing edgy an­swers, as if to make clear he didn’t want to take fur­ther ques­tions. Maybe he was get­ting a sense of déjà-vu. La­gos de Co­vadonga was where Unzué’s old cham­pion, Miguel In­durain, re­fused to con­tinue the 1996 Vuelta a Es­paña on his last ever race day as a pro­fes­sional cy­clist. So maybe Unzué has am­biva­lent mem­o­ries of the climb at best.

This time though, it was the af­ter­math of the key stage of the 2018 Vuelta, its tough­est moun­tain­top fin­ish. The clas­si­fi­ca­tion said both of his team’s can­di­dates for vic­tory in the race, Nairo Quin­tana and Ale­jan­dro Valverde, had lost a few sec­onds and were placed se­cond and third on the GC. So far, so good, yet the stage told a quite dif­fer­ent story: they had looked sev­eral steps be­hind race leader Si­mon Yates, and weaker than con­tenders like those who would join the Bri­tish rider on the fi­nal podium in Madrid, En­ric Mas and Miguel Án­gel López.

The signs weren’t en­cour­ag­ing ahead of the race’s de­ci­sive third week of five makeor-break stages. The team’s per­for­mance was honourable, and they took over the reins of a race at which re­spon­si­bil­ity is pu­ta­tively theirs, but Quin­tana was off the podium on the climb to Monte Oiz in the Basque Coun­try and Valverde sank in the stages in An­dorra.

In the end, the Span­ish team came out of the Tour de France and Vuelta with three stage vic­to­ries and two pyrrhic team clas­si­fi­ca­tion ti­tles – ahead of BahrainMerida – a prize which most teams don’t even bother pur­su­ing. Fur­ther, there was no Mo­vis­tar pres­ence on the fi­nal podium, nor a sin­gle day in the leader’s jersey. It was far from their stated goal of up­set­ting Sky in the big­gest races. In fact, the au­thor of Mo­vis­tar’s best fi­nal GC plac­ing in a grand tour in 2018 was not one of its three star rid­ers - Quin­tana, Valverde or new 2018 sign­ing Mikel Landa - but Richard Cara­paz, who was fourth at the Giro and who won the stage to Mon­tev­ergine di Mercogliano. As for one-week races, its great­est suc­cess was de­liv­ered by Marc Soler’s com­ing-ofage per­for­mance at Paris-Nice, where he took the fi­nal vic­tory by storm, de­thron­ing none other than Si­mon Yates in the last stage of the Race to the Sun.

All in all, the Mo­vis­tar team which ruled the UCI World­Tour team rank­ing be­tween 2013 and 2016 was, at the end of the Vuelta now sit­ting sev­enth in the stand­ings. The de­cline was ex­plained by the weak­en­ing of its ros­ter – the ex­o­dus of their se­cond unit that in­cluded Jonathan Cas­tro­viejo, Jesús Her­rada and both Iza­girre brothers – but also by the un­der­achieve­ment of its three lead­ers.

LOOK­ING FOR NAIRO

The case of Nairo Quin­tana is one of the most in­trigu­ing sto­ries in cur­rent pro cy­cling. The as­sess­ment of his ca­reer varies dra­mat­i­cally depend­ing on the bias of the an­a­lyst. The num­bers clearly demon­strate a re­mark­ably re­li­able rider who has only twice been out of the top 10 on any grand tour he has fin­ished: his maiden Vuelta (2012, 36th) and a Tour de France (2017, 12th). They also tell the story of a rider who, but for an aban­don due to a crash in the 2014 Vuelta, was fourth or bet­ter in seven straight grand tours be­tween the 2013 Tour and 2017 Giro. But af­ter that, we find ar­guably an un­der­per­former who has been eighth or worse in his three most re­cent grand tours. He is fol­lowed, praised and sup­ported with pas­sion by his Colom­bian fan­dom, but he is of­ten crit­i­cised and ob­served with ut­ter in­dif­fer­ent dis­ap­point­ment by the rest of the cy­cling world, who find him aloof.

Is Quin­tana a mat­ter of un­ful­filled ex­pec­ta­tions?

Maybe it’s the fact he only at­tacks when he feels clearly su­pe­rior to his op­po­nents; oth­er­wise he ei­ther sits on the wheels of team-mates and ri­vals or takes short pulls that end with bold el­bow flicks ask­ing for a re­lay. Or maybe there is some kind of mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion as­pect that is es­sen­tial to these per­cep­tions?

Mixed mes­sages are an is­sue with Quin­tana. On his big­gest day of glory in the 2018 sea­son, his vic­tory atop the Tour’s Col du Portet on stage 17, de­liv­ered by a blunt of­fen­sive that was well sup­ported by his team-mates, his fol­low­ing in­ter­views in the mixed zone were re­veal­ing. Take the ones with the in­ter­na­tional me­dia and you will reckon he’s a se­ri­ous, even shy sports­man chart­ing the strat­egy of the team and prais­ing the ef­forts made by Valverde or Soler in his favour. “It’s been a vic­tory for me and for the whole team,” he re­peated time and again. But lis­ten to those made with the Latin Amer­i­can me­dia and you will find a cheer­ful young man ad­dress­ing his fans and speak­ing of him­self in the third per­son as if to en­hance his heroic sta­tus. “This is a vic­tory for all the Nairo fans,” was his motto. His team didn’t ex­ist in those in­ter­views as it doesn’t ex­ist on his pro­fes­sion­ally han­dled Twit­ter feed. His last men­tion of the of­fi­cial @Mo­vis­tar_ Team ac­count was in April.

It is no se­cret that there have been con­flicts be­tween Quin­tana and Mo­vis­tar since they teamed up in 2012. Sport­ing­wise, the rider’s en­tourage and even his

Mo­vis­tar came out of the Tour and Vuelta with­out a pres­ence on the clos­ing podium nor a sin­gle day in the leader’s jersey

fa­ther blamed the team for his un­der­per­for­mance in last sea­son’s Tour, say­ing the de­ci­sion to race the de­mand­ing Giro be­fore the main goal of the sea­son was not con­sen­sual, but down to Unzué. There have been fur­ther prob­lems with the team’s man­age­ment, rang­ing from tense con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tions to the sud­den sack­ing of staff mem­bers close to Quin­tana. There has been fric­tion with team-mates, with sev­eral episodes of team do­mes­tiques de­mand­ing that Quin­tana change what they saw as a despotic at­ti­tude in his early years on the team. “He is a viper,” one team-mate said, speak­ing of how he was try­ing to snatch the lead­er­ship from the al­ways kind but guile­less Valverde.

A PER­FECT PART­NER­SHIP

The prob­lem and the an­swer to this dishar­mony is that Mo­vis­tar and Quin­tana need each other. Mo­vis­tar is one of the big­gest com­pa­nies in Spain, a phone and com­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pany for which Latin Amer­ica is a key grow­ing mar­ket. A star like Quin­tana is a great, pow­er­ful am­bas­sador for the brand there. Se­bastián Unzué, Euse­bio’s son, who at this mo­ment works for the team as a PR, put it this way: “You al­ways fight for your main spon­sor’s in­ter­ests. For Mo­vis­tar, coun­tries like Colom­bia, Costa Rica, Ar­gentina and Ecuador are a huge part of its busi­ness. That’s the rea­son why we re­cruited rid­ers from those coun­tries, and we have been lucky enough to find great ones.”

Car­los Ar­ribas, jour­nal­ist for Span­ish news­pa­per ElPaís, goes fur­ther: “If the spon­sor­ship of the team is ex­tended, it is be­cause the Latin Amer­i­can branches of Mo­vis­tar de­mand it to go on. Per­son­al­i­ties such as An­drey Amador, Nairo Quin­tana or Richard Cara­paz pro­vide ex­po­sure in these mar­kets they could never reach, even with a lot of in­vest­ment in ad­ver­tis­ing.”

As for Quin­tana, the com­mu­nica­tive fire­power of Mo­vis­tar in this area has been es­sen­tial to build the de­vo­tion his fan base ex­presses at al­most ev­ery race he goes to. He re­ceives a huge salary that is in line with his promi­nence in Colom­bia and its nearby coun­tries. It is re­mu­ner­a­tion he would never be paid by a team with­out in­ter­ests in that re­gion – and there are few of those, if any oth­ers, in the present World­Tour.

But what about the de­cline of

Landa was within touch­ing dis­tance of the Tour de France podium un­til the inal week and even tried a long- range at­tack on the last moun­tain stage which placed him in the vir­tual third place of the GC

Quin­tana’s per­for­mance? The ex­u­ber­ant climber sur­prised ev­ery­one when he chal­lenged Chris Froome for the yel­low jersey in 2013, be­fore sev­eral months later pro­duc­ing a con­tro­ver­sial up­heaval in the Giro to bring home the maglia rosa. Yet to­day, he’s changed into a cal­cu­lat­ing, hes­i­tant rider who failed to sew up the Giro in 2017 when a call of na­ture put Tom Du­moulin’s pink jersey at stake. He has been far from the podium in his three fol­low­ing grand tour par­tic­i­pa­tions.

“I want to think these have been 18 odd months for him,” Unzué said to Diario de Navarra in the af­ter­math of the Vuelta. “I frankly doubt that we have al­ready seen the best of a rider who is only 28 years old. Time will tell.”

Yet in these “18 odd months” Quin­tana has still pro­duced some bril­liant ex­ploits, like his solo vic­to­ries in stages of the Tour de France and the Tour de Suisse. Af­ter the lat­ter, ac­cord­ing to one source within the team, he was dis­play­ing some of his best power num­bers in years, “and then the Tour went awry, and he faded out.” Mikel Landa’s ar­rival this sea­son has not been a fac­tor in Quin­tana’s de­cay. Con­trary to re­ports that as­serted there were ten­sions be­tween the two, his fit within the ros­ter has been smooth. His jour­ney into the team, though, was marked by con­tro­versy. The ini­tial agree­ment be­tween Landa and Mo­vis­tar was reached be­fore his su­perb per­for­mance at the 2017 Tour, where he missed the podium by a mere se­cond. Af­ter that, his mar­ket value sky­rock­eted and teams such as Trek-Se­gafredo bid for him. Landa’s agent, Jesús Ezkur­dia, an out­sider with a char­ac­ter de­fined by mem­bers of the World­Tour es­tab­lish­ment as “strong” and “dif­fi­cult,” con­ducted a tense rene­go­ti­a­tion of the deal that led to a sub­stan­tially in­creased salary for his client.

At the same time, Landa and Ezkur­dia took over Fun­dación Euskadi, the en­tity

that used to run the Euskaltel-Euskadi team, and reg­is­tered its road rac­ing squad in the UCI’s Con­ti­nen­tal divi­sion with the sup­port of two Basque cy­cling in­dus­try com­pa­nies, Or­bea and Etx­eondo. The as­so­ci­a­tion of Landa with these brands was not at all pleas­ant for Mo­vis­tar’s stake­hold­ers. Fur­ther­more, Ezkur­dia pub­licly as­serted the aim was to at­tract spon­sor­ship for the Fun­dación Euskadi in or­der to set-up a big­ger team that could par­tic­i­pate at the Tour de France led by Landa “in the short­est-pos­si­ble term”. The Basque agent was there­fore look­ing at what might be com­ing af­ter Mo­vis­tar be­fore his client had even com­peted in his fresh new light blue jersey.

On the road, Landa has per­formed well this sea­son. He has one vic­tory to his name: the sum­mit fin­ish of Tir­reno-Adri­atico at Sas­sotetto. He was also the most con­sis­tent prong of Mo­vis­tar’s tri­dent in the Tour. De­spite crash­ing on the Roubaix stage, he was in touch­ing dis­tance of the podium un­til the fi­nal week. He even tried a lon­grange at­tack on the last moun­tain stage which placed him in the vir­tual third place of the GC, be­fore he was reeled back in by Sky and Lot­toNL-Jumbo. A crash in the Clásica San Se­bastián marred the re­main­der of his sea­son.

As for Ale­jan­dro Valverde, in­side the team, his sea­son is re­garded as a suc­cess. It comes af­ter his shock­ing crash in the open­ing time trial of the 2017 Tour, in which he sus­tained se­vere in­juries to his left leg. “This Vuelta is a real tri­umph af­ter what hap­pened in Düs­sel­dorf,” he told ITV.

Yet there was still a rea­son to re­gret his per­for­mance in the Span­ish grand tour. He was sup­posed to be par­tic­i­pat­ing in a sup­port role, while pre­par­ing for his main goal, the World Cham­pi­onships. Inns­bruck rep­re­sents his last shot at a rain­bow jersey that would be the ic­ing on the cake for his long pal­marès. In­stead, he dug deep for the whole three weeks, po­ten­tially harm­ing his build-up, only to blow dra­mat­i­cally when the race reached An­dorra. He dropped from se­cond to fifth in the fi­nal GC stand­ings. “Fight­ing for GC was not planned,” he con­fessed. “He was in con­tention com­ing into the third week and there was no rea­son to let the race go,” Unzué coun­tered.

In any case, Inns­bruck re­mains the last chance for Mo­vis­tar’s trio of lead­ers to re­deem a sea­son that, so far and for dif­fer­ent rea­sons, has been a fi­asco.

A stage win at the Giro lifted Cara­paz to fourth, Mo­vis­tar’s best grand tour GC re­sult in 2018

Af­ter his GC hopes faded, Quin­tana sal­vaged a moun­tain stage win at the Tour

Quin­tana lost the lead to Tom Du­moulin in the clos­ing TT of the 2017 Giro d’ItaliaValverde beats Sa­gan in Al­maden on stage 8 to claim his se­cond stage win

Mo­vis­tar boss Euse­bio Unzué is un­able to pin­point where it went wrong

Landa ended the Tour strongly with an ag­gres­sive ride on the inal moun­tain stage

Vet­eran Valverde has started to look ahead to the end of his ca­reer in 2020

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