Looking at Movistar -- Persistence pays off big for rejuvenated Spanish giants
There's a lot to be said in life for knowing who you are and what you do best... and sticking with it. OK, that sounds like the intro to a future lecture directed at DS Little Bear, and it probably is. When it happens, I'm not sure the first illustration of my point to pop into my mind will be Team Movistar. More likely I'll talk about my dad, who recently put the finishing touches on a very successful career spent entirely, improbably, with the same employer. They were a winning team.
But oddly enough, I could pull out Team Movistar, couldn't I? Maybe as both an example and a cautionary tale. A story of finding a successful formula and employing it to full advantage. And a story about getting back to the basics after losing one's way. How knowing who you are can help you overcome trying times, even the ones of your own doing. Something like that.
It wasn't long ago that Movistar, then Caisse d'Epargne, was looking down the double barrels of sponsor withdrawal and star suspension. The latter was hard to gauge at the time. Alejandro Valverde was clearly a product of the early 2000s, an era soaked in EPO, and if there was any ambiguity about his guilt, the evidence alone was enough to put him in the "probable doper" bin. So when the swift and decisive Italian justice system (the one reserved for foreigners) took him down, it seemed like a positive step. All the more jarring, then, that manager Eusebio Unzue continued to stand by him making it clear that Valverde would be welcomed right back into the fold.
As to the former problem, the French bank Caisse d'Epargne gracefully bowed out of cycling as its contract expired in 2010, concurrent with Valverde's legal troubles. That plus a disillusioned Spanish public seemed to spell the end of the Unzue franchise, whose roots went all the way back to 1980, then the Reynolds and later Banesto, with riders like Julian Gorospe, Pedro Delgado and Miguel Indurain in its trophy case. The giants of Navarra looked primed for a fall. But Spanish cycling was also at its zenith, with champions seemingly left and right, and in the end the Movistar rescue was the one of several rumored scenarios to actually play itself out. By the end of 2010, Unzue had lost his star rider (officially) but saved the team. During his absence Unzue openly pined for Valverde's return (and Valverde was seen in team colors), so it shocked nobody that Valverde returned for 2012, putting things right back where they started. No apologies, no reluctance on the team's part, nothing more than a desire to get back to winning, with Valverde as the team captain.
Below the headlines, the team underwent a pretty normal rate of change and regeneration. Some defections stung the team's bottom line, such as losing Luis Leon Sanchez to Rabobank and Rigoberto Uran to Sky after 2010. The accidental death of Xavier Tondo in May, 2011 shocked the team and deprived them of a grand tour threat as well. Their other outside threat, Mauricio Soler, crashed in Switzerland and retired as a result of the head injuries he suffered. Making matters worse (competitively speaking), castoff JJ Cobo won the Vuelta a Espana in Geox "colors." Nothing really gelled in the absence of the figurehead of Valverde, with the team slipping from 8th to 12th in the world rankings (CQ) (and 10th to unranked at the Podium Cafe World Rankings). JJ Rojas had a breakout season, and there were useful contributions from Rui Costa and Vasil Kiryienka, but that's about it.
So the outlook for 2012 could only get better, even if Valverde -- formerly the world's most reliable point-scorer -- needed time to kick off some of the rust. He did that, with a season that can only be described as spectacular. Maybe even redemptive, if you can trust that a rider with his past has gone straight. The talk has died down, though, and the team has risen back up in the standings. Looks like Unzue knew what he was doing all along.
What We Thought Coming In
I'm sure after the Green Bullet got suspended and the team melted away to irrelevance in 2011, there didn't seem like much to say.
What We Got
Just the #4 team in the world (CQ; (#6 at the PdC World Rankings with BMC and Garmin sneaking past), a cut below the dominant triumvirate of Quick Step, Sky and Joaquim Rodriguez, or whatever you call his team.
Like I said, it had a lot to do with Valverde, who resumed his scoring habits within seconds of being set free. Valverde won in January, February and March. He lost a sprint to teammate Giovanni Visconti in April, then after a poor Ardennes campaign (including a disqualification for a wrong turn in Liege) and a break in May while gearing up to the Tour, he truly returned to his old form. On stage 17 of the Tour de France, after crashes and Sky's domination had snuffed his GC hopes, Valverde soloed away in the Pyrenees on the Port de Bales, winning alone atop the Peyragudes. From there he won three stages (TTT included) in the first week of the Vuelta, hung around the leaderboard, didn't get fooled on Stage 17 when Alberto Contador outfoxed Joaquim Rodriguez for the overall lead, and even dopped the Saxo star a few times in the high mountains. For his troubles, Valverde finished second, 1.16 back, and won the points competition.
Aside from Valverde, there were other positive developments, led by Rui Costa's breakout performance. The still-young (26) Portuguese climber won the queen stage of the Tour de Suisse and held on for the overall win a week later. He also took the team's highest overall finish in the Tour de France (18th) and rode valiantly in the summer classics, taking second in Plouay and third in Quebec.
And for all that, he's earned the honor of carrying water to Nairo Quintana. OK, I kid, not quite yet, but the 22-year-old Colombian climber (no!) threw down a spectacular first season in the big leagues. He opened his account with a victory in the road stage of the Vuelta al Region de Murcia, hanging on for the overall win by six seconds over a quality field. Quintana also took second in the Vuelta al Comunidad de Madrid, won the Route du Sud, and won a mountain stage of the Dauphine, just ahead of Evans, Wiggins, Froome, et al. Despite running out of gas in the Vuelta, Quintana recovered to win the Giro dell'Emilia and finished with the leaders at Il Lombardia. Peter Sagan still rules the 22-year-old scene, but Quintana made his mark among the brighter prospects in the sport. Along with Costa, cronoman Jonathan Castroviejo and all-rounder Benat Intxausti, Movistar have a budding and well-rounded core of young talent.
Good thing too, because after Valverde the veterans on the team saw their point totals dip or disappear entirely. Of course in some cases, like Cobo, you could blame the shift in duties from leadership to assisting Valverde. In others, like Rojas, crashes deprived him of his bread-and-butter, stage sprints and points. Then there's Visconti, who seemed to drop half his value simply by being on a Spanish team, and not hanging around Italy all year scoring top tens in forgettable races. Most of these performances fit pretty squarely under "regression to the mean," including Visconti, whose performance looks a little like the guy you see on TV rather than the juked stats he's been turning in all these years.
Top Three Highlights
- Valverde wins Tour stage 17. Probably not what excited me the most, but for all the team has invested in Valverde, this was a nice payback.
- Rui Costa wins Tour de Suisse. Frankly it wasn't a very inspiring course this year, but that's a big points haul and a memorable win for the Portuguese all-rounder. I could have put Intxausti's Asturias win here, which was just about on par and just as telling.
- Quintana wins Emilia. Watching this dude is going to be great fun.
Bottom Three Lowlights
- Valverde goes left, Liege-Bastogne-Liege goes right. Seriously, that was pretty embarrassing, and on a day when he supposedly had the legs.
- JJ Rojas crashes out of the Tour. No, he wasn't going to hang with Sagan in the pursuit of the maillot vert, but this was a pretty unkind exit.
- Vuelta stage 4, Rodriguez drops Valverde. The dream of a grand tour win was pretty much over after this.
Where do they go now?
What, you think they're going to change things up now? Clearly the formula is more of the same, at least until someone from the Costa/Intxausti/Castroviejo/Quintana crowd is ready to take a leadership role. The first two could manage sometime very soon, but as long as Unzue believes Valverde has a chance to win a grand tour, they'll just keep going to the well. Maybe incoming Eros Capecchi can do more than lend a hand. Giro leadership, anyone?
In truth Quintana probably shouldn't be counted on much. If they're smart (as appears to be the case), you'll see the Colombian kid take his lumps this year, possibly with a Giro-Vuelta double, since a Tour slot is probably another year away. Cobo is the leader for the Giro, which is a nice way to pay him back for a loyal effort last year.
Don't expect many sprint wins. I like JJ Rojas OK, but he and Francisco Ventoso are more likely to win oddball sprints, or in smaller races. Visconti and Valverde can both close out a race, but generally not against top sprinting talent.