Spain is in the depths of an all-consuming economic crisis, or so I am repeatedly told (as opposed to meaningfully understanding). Everything is on the chopping block, including sports sponsorship, and of course cycling sponsorship is the easiest to drop, or at least it seems like sponsors come and go pretty freely with little fear of lawsuits. So yeah, cycling in Spain is in rough shape right now.
So we look at Movistar in this light. One of the last vestiges of the Spanish Sports Empire, which ruled the sporting seas for much of the last 20 years, and which hasn't stopped its powerful course through cycling, at least not in 2013. But there's an emptiness to it, particularly when one thinks about what might have been and maybe even more so regarding what's coming next. Spanish cycling is not replenishing itself with fresh faces at the same rate it produced stars in the early 2000s. Back in 2008, Samuel Sanchez reached the heights of his one-day glory with an Olympic gold medal. Alberto Contador paused briefly between Tour de France victories, thanks to Astana's exclusion from the Tour, so he consoled himself with wins in the Giro and Vuelta instead. Alejandro Valverde was two years past his most dominant classics season but one year away from a Vuelta win, with Joaquim Rodriguez his increasingly dangerous understudy. Oscar Freire had peaked earlier in the decade but was still riding strongly. There was depth and quality everywhere you looked.
Now in 2013, who are the Spanish stars? Pretty much the same guys. Euskaltel threw all in for Sammy this year, despite the obvious futility of that strategy. Valverde owned the reins at Movistar, as did Rodriguez at Katusha, as did Contador at Saxo-Tinkoff. The latter trio produced some results, but fell short of most expectations. Dani Moreno, age 32, is the only additional Spanish rider ranked in the top 40 (PdC Rankings). Benat Intxausti and JJ Rojas Gil are the only Spanish riders under 30 in the top 100.
As goes a nation's talent development curve, so goes the fortunes of its talismanic trade team(s). Spain probably isn't lacking in talent, but it is supposedly lacking in development, thanks to the crisis of sponsorship. And so, we see a Movistar roster heavy on older Spaniards (Valverde, Guti, Plaza, Ventoso, Cobo, Lastras!) and light on dynamic young Spaniards who can give the country a reason to root for their biggest team.
But somewhere the story of Spain stops, and the story of Movistar keeps going...
What We Thought Coming In
This ought to be entertaining...
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.
It's possible I was just sandbagging Quintana's prospects for my FSA DS team.
What We Got Instead
Overall we did see plenty more of the same, with most of the team's biggest ambitions tied to the fortunes of Valverde. Not for nothing, by the way -- just because I don't appreciate him doesn't mean he can't ride his bike. He can, always has, and seemingly plans to continue doing so, indefinitely.
And of course, when it came to the grand tours, we got the Grand Tour Alejandro Action Figure, often confused with Beach Vacation Alejandro (but never confused with Ethical Makeover Alejandro), for all the impact either one has on the Tour de France. Granted, it wasn't until a mechanical knocked him out of the crosswind tunnel and into Tour oblivion again. And the team resisted updating its thinking, leaving Rui Costa back with Valverde in a hopeless plan to rejoin the peloton. But resistance became futile when Quintana, left with no Earthly reason not to ride himself into a lather, surged up the GC and into third place.
This is where things changed. Actually, things had already changed when Rui Costa won his second consecutive Tour de Suisse, putting him out there as someone to watch very carefully in the Tour. And they had started changing when Quintana became Nairo! with a very nifty win in the Pais Vasco, following a strong ride in Catalunya. The kid had something, even if we weren't sure what. And the other kid, the slightly older Portuguese one, he was bringing some quality. If you were Eusebio Unzue, your thinking was, how can I deploy that talent to help Alejandro win?
And therein lies the mistake. How much were these kids going to help Valverde win this Tour? Certainly not in the time trials. Maybe in the longer climbs, like Ventoux or Alpe d'Huez, but only then if they could wrest control of the tempo from Sky and other teams, and even then, only if Valverde could keep up. A better plan would have been to protect all three, to have Costa up the road with Quintana when Valverde's wheel exploded, or if that doesn't happen, to have three well-positioned cards to play. Maybe it isn't that easy. Maybe a Spanish public was always going to be too wedded to its elderly golden generation to give the Colombian and Portuguese guys a fair shot. Or maybe just Unzue. Either way, it was too late by the time we all figured it out.
And by that I mean September 29 in Tuscany.
Anyway, there were some other guys worth talking about. On the way up are the Herrada boys, Jose (28 y.o.) finishing 12th in the Vuelta and looking like a key mountains ally going forward, and Jesus (23) becoming national champion. Intxausti made significant improvement in his age-27 season, winning the valuable (if not beloved) Tour of Beijing and more impressively taking 8th and a stage in the Giro d'Italia. Javi Moreno chipped in some welcomed points and smaller stage race success. On the down side, they never challenged anyone in sprints, with neither Ventoso nor Rojas breaking through. And of course Valverde, despite racking up points all year, didn't win a single race after February.
Top Three Highlights
- Quintana takes fourth in Alpe d'Huez-double stage. Oh, you were looking for his stage win two days later? Nope. This is the day Nairo! arrived. The three guys who finished ahead on the stage (Riblon, van Garderen, Moser) weren't chased. Quintana attacked out of the heads of state at the top of the first Alpe climb and held on for fourth, ditching Purito Rodriguez, and putting more than a minute into Froome and Porte. This was no joke.
- Rui Costa wins Rainbow Jersey. By any rational standard, this would be #1 in most people's books. However, Costa defeated two Spaniards, including teammate Valverde, and will wear the rainbow jersey for Lampre next year. So in that sense it's a bittersweet event from the team's perspective. But Unzue raised him from a pup, and should feel like a proud papa sending his kid off to college.
- Intxausti's Giro stage win. Taking a three-up sprint from Tanel Kangert and Przemyslaw Niemiec, Intxausti raised his fingers in an "X" in honor of former cyclist Xavier Tondo, who died in Intxausti's arms exactly two years earlier in a tragic household accident. Got goosebumps yet? It's worth mentioning that Intxausti has moved steadily up the ladder and as a result of his Italian exploits has now positioned himself for big things in 2014.
Bottom Three Lowlights
- Valverde's mechanical massacre. Some 85km away from Cher (!) Valverde's wheel and dreams broke to bits, blown away on the unforgiving crosswinds of northern France. That's cycling. Putting your #2 guy with Valverde so he could also lose 13 minutes on the stage for no good reason? Well, I suppose that's also cycling, though I question why it should be.
- Valverde's Unlucky 13: That Tour stage was stage 13. Two months later, on stage 13 of the Vuelta a Espana, Valverde again suffered a mechanical, got smacked in the face by a spectator (accidentally), and saw Lastras go down with a broken collarbone.
- Goddam Joaquim Rodriguez: Take your pick... losing LBL to Rodriguez (and of course Martin)? Losing Lombardia to Rodriguez? Completely flubbing the end of the worlds road race, with no small help from Rodriguez? Maybe I shouldn't make this all about Valverde, but the team does, so who am I to argue?
What Happens Next?
For all my doom and gloom, 2014 is looking rather bright for Movistar, at least as long as their financial backing remains set. With a year of disappointments, Unzue should feel free to use Valverde the way he should -- as a dangerous all-rounder who can finish off a one-day race with the best of them, and maybe sneak out another grand tour podium. A protected rider... but not someone for whom you sacrifice everything.
Quintana's future is exceedingly bright, which is ominous for 2014. Apparently he may opt for a shot at a rough Giro rather than a middlin' Tour de France, but in either case he comes in as a grand tour favorite, and he'll be surrounded by a very deep and talented squad of A-list climbing support.
Speaking of which, the Izagirre brothers come in to play the Costa role, particularly Jon, who at 24 may be ready to make a Costa-like leap. Big shoes, however -- if we learned anything in Toscana it's how bike-smart Costa is, not something easily replicated. Juanjo Lobato joins as the next big sprinter, though like his Euskaltel compatriots inexperience is an issue for the time being. Talent, apparently, is not.
Will they regret losing the world champion? Sure, but with Euskaltel contracts to feast on as well as their own internal depth, e.g. Jesus Herrara, Movistar will once again show up at every race, all year, all over Europe, with plenty of cards to play.