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
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