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Offseason Capsule: Movistar

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Somebody, please, make it 2018!

Cycling: 103rd Liege-Bastogne-Liege 2017 / Men Corbis Sport

The very definition of the “season of two halves.” Everything started brilliantly for this particular navy ‘n’ highlights squad. Then we got into the bit of the season they care about, and it all went wrong.

What we said last year

Do you know, I don’t think we did? That doesn’t sound right, and I do struggle with the search function, so I may have missed it. In fact, I don’t think we have covered them since the 13/14 offseason. Capsules aside, we talk about them a lot, especially on the podcafst, since they’re (nearly) always relevant come the Grand Tours and the Ardennes. We expected a big year from Piti in the Ardennes, and Chris and I thought he might grab a podium in France. Your three editors were united in predicting that Quintana would boss the Giro.

What we got in 2017

We got a very lively start, with Quintana (Valencia), Valverde (Andalucia) and Barbero (Alentejo) all winning before February finished. The good vibrations continued with bigger wins as racing hotted up through spring. Quintana won Tirreno-Adriatico and Valverde was dominant in Catalunya and victorious in the Basque Country. He parlayed that form into completing the Fleche-Wallone and Liege-Bastogne-Liege double for the third time in his career, capping an exceptional spring.

Meanwhile, Quintana was preparing for the 100th Giro, and took the line as favourite. He won on stage 9 into Blockhaus, taking the lead at the second rest day and appearing to be in control, but lost nearly three minutes to Dumoulin, surrendering pink in the process. The next 10 stages saw endless climbing and opportunities galore for Quintana, with the parcours and some peculiar moments (no, I won’t talk about Dumoulin’s incident by the roadside. I won’t.) seeming to favour him. His narrow lead after stage 20 proved not to be enough and Dumoulin pipped him to a Giro title the Colombian must have expected to win with some ease.

Quintana came into his attempt at a Giro-Tour double on the back foot and looked a spent force throughout, but hopes were high for his teammate until Valverde slipped taking a tight corner in torrential rain in the opening time trial in Dusseldorf. He did all kinds of damage, including but not limited to a fractured patella, and was done for the year.

The remainder of the season demonstrated an uncomfortable truth for Movistar; the top of their roster can be dominant, but there weren’t many other leaders in the wings. The likes of Soler may change that in time but how this team must wish that an Izaguirre, Intxausti or Lobato were still around to have provided hope in the autumn. There were few high points for the remainder of the season as a decapitated squad played out the string.

FSA-DS Ranking 2017

10th – In points terms, the closest thing we have to average (just 90 points above the world tour mean, and of course, they make up half of the median). What is remarkable is the seasonal split. In mid-June, Quintana and Valverde had 2,678 points between them. They added just 460 more in the last four months of the season. That’s okay if you’re Boonen or van Avermaet, but they aren’t.

One more stat, recycled from our most recent podcafst. The teams’ 25th victory was stage 9 of the Giro, on the 14th May. They added just 6 more wins, the most prestigious of which was the Spanish TT Nats. This is a team that achieved an ordinary result in an extraordinary way, with just about the most front-loaded season I’ve ever seen, and not the team you’d expect to have producing it.

Top Highlights

1. Valverde did what he does in the spring, winning again in Liege and at la Fleche, extending his record number of wins in the latter and moving within one of Merckx’s record in the former. So much of the discussion of Piti, correctly, is tied up in how he achieves his results that I sometimes forget what a winning machine he’s been. Liege was his 11th win of 2017 and his 94th overall, a record that will presumably grow again in 2018. Don’t rule out 100 wins.

2. Quintana’s season got off to a less spectacular start than his teammate’s, but he won a shade comfortably in Tirreno-Adriatico to go into the Giro as a prohibitive favourite. That’s a big win and he beat a decent field to grab himself a trident.

Cycling: 52nd Tirreno-Adriatico 2017 / Stage 7
At least he won the best trophy in cycling
Corbis Sport

3. Partly because there aren’t many to choose from, and partly because this is my article and I can do what I like, I’m going with Rory Sutherland winning in Rioja. I like it when the unassuming veteran gets a rare day in the sun, and such days have been awfully rare for Rory. He held off a decent field to come in solo for the biggest win of a thirteen year career, and it is nice to give that sort of performance some recognition.

Bottom Lowlights

1. I think this has to be Quintana’s Giro. Being beaten by a younger man is something that happens in sport, and certainly Dumoulin is a very worthy adversary. Quintana led at the second rest day, as he was supposed to (though by just 30 seconds from Tom), and had regained a lead of 53 seconds over his adversary coming into the decisive time trial, but was blown away. Losing so much time (1.24) on a short time trial is certainly poor, but it was in many ways his climbing that was the greater concern for Quintana fans. He was able to get away from the field on climbs like the Blockhaus, but the Giro bigs weren’t truly exceptional (Pinot, Dumolin, Nibali and Mollema) and it was taking multiple attacks to shift them. He needs to show he’s regained his fearsome acceleration on the big climbs in 2018 if he’s to add to his GT haul.

2. Most, I suspect, would have Valverde’s Dusseldorf crash at the top of this list, and I thought about it. It was a horrible crash and a clear lowlight, but I have dropped it down a peg because it appears he’ll make a full recovery, and because he’d already had a stellar season. None of that diminishes the fact that there was a Tour course made for his style of riding and one slippery corner robbed him of it.

Cycling: 104th Tour de France 2017 / Stage 1
Just before the wheels came off, figuratively and almost literally.
Corbis Sport

3. Arcas, Betancur, Carapaz, Fernandez, Moreno, Oliveira, Pedrero, Rojas and Soler. That’s a decent group of riders. What it shouldn’t be is the starting squad for one of the biggest teams in cycling, in their home Grand Tour. Rojas’ 20th was their best position on GC by the time they rolled into Madrid. For a team who’ve only missed the podium once since 2011 (Quintana was 4th in 2015) that was a weak end to their season. They missed a top-10 in the Tour, too (a spent Quintana managed 12th).

Comings and goings for 2018

Ins: Jaime Castrillo, Mikel Landa (Team Sky), Jaime Roson (Caja Rural), Eduardo Sepulveda (Fortuneo-Oscaro).

Outs: Alex Dowsett (Katusha), Jesús Herrada (Cofidis), José Herrada (Cofidis), Gorka Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida), Adriano Malori (retired), Rory Sutherland (UAE Team Emirates), Jonathan Castroviejo (Team Sky), Daniel Moreno (EF-Drapac).

Renewals: Jorge Arcas, Nelson Oliveira, Antonio Pedredo, Carlos Betancur, Winner Anacona.

Cycling: Road World Championships 2015 / TT Men Elite Podium / Adriano MALORI (Ita) Silver Medal Deception Teleurstelling / Richmond - Richmond (53,5Km)/ Time Trial Men Elite / Contre la Montre Hommes / Tijdrit Mannen / Championat du Monde Route / Wereldkampioenschap Weg WC /©Tim De Waele (Photo by Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images)
Happier times: Malori wins ITT world silver in 2015
Corbis Sport

There’s a “stick to your knitting” theme here, with Jaime Roson adding another talented and experienced Spanish climber to the GT squads, and the exodus of several of the squads strongest TT enginges. Dowsett and Castroviejo, despite their undoubted talents, never quite fit into this squad. Castrillo is young but a talented time triallist, and Sepulveda (and the renewed Oliviera) have talent in that direction, but in the short term at least they’ve got weaker in chrono races. The big news, of course, is the signing of Landa, but we’ll get to that.

This is another squad with fewer riders than last year; they have a decent budget but given the telecoms industry and the Spanish economy, I can’t imagine Movistar mind funding a smaller, but still elite, squad. The move to smaller race teams is a factor, but it may also be a convenient excuse at a time of pressure.

Two other bits of important news, one probably good, one probably bad. Movistar have formed a women’s cycling team. In my view, about time too, and this should be a requirement of all WT teams. On the other hand, I do sympathise with those who would rather have the women’s sport funded on its own merit and without recourse to outfits with unfortunate histories. At any rate, there are nine of them and we’ll see what they can do. Women’s cycling in Spain isn’t yet at the heights it has reached in much of cycling’s heartland, and I hope we see improvements.

2017 also saw the retirement of Adriano Malori, who was unable to return to racing form after a truly horrendous injury at the start of 2016. He’s aiming to move into cycling management and whilst I’m sorry to lose a talented rider from the peloton, this feels like a good decision taken for the best of reasons. Let’s hope he gets more luck in the next phase.

Most intriguing rider

C’mon, now. Was it going to be anyone other than Antonio Pedrero?

I kid, although he’s better than you think. This has to be Mikel Landa, who follows Richie Porte on the path from Team Sky underling to designated Tour challenger… or does he? Fresh off a fourth place in the Tour, riding superbly in support of Froome after his hopes of winning the Giro were dashed in the Kelderman pile-up, the Spaniard was the hottest prize on the free-agent market.

A move to Movistar appeared to put a round peg in a round hole, with Valverde coming off an injury and Quintana’s ambitions limited by his Giro loss. Landa moved to Movistar to step into a vacancy as the Tour leader. Unfortunately, nobody seems to have told Nairo, who as a two-time GT winner aged just 27 is entitled to be a little frustrated. So there’s some polemica, and it is far too early to say who will be aimed at which races, but it appears we can take graceful co-operation off the menu of options.

Even if they were having Christmas dinner together and all was rosy, adding Landa to Quintana’s team would be intriguing. One or other them will be able to compete in France, and the other will be among the favourites for the Giro. With Landa, as with Porte at the same point, we don’t have a sense yet of how far he can go. He appears to recover well, to climb excellently and to be a competent time-trialler. Can he put it all together, deal with the pressure and spend three weeks at or near the top of the GC? Possibly, but perhaps not. That’s what makes this intriguing.

CALELLA, SPAIN - MAY 20: Mikel Linda of Team Sky, during the first stage of Tour cycling race, La Volta a Catalunya, on May 20, 2017 in Calella, Spain. (Photo by Joan Cros Garcia/Corbis via Getty Images)
Is this the face of a 2018 Grand Tour winner?
Corbis Sport

So, what happens next?

Put all that together, and you have a team with a severe lack of leadership options, which has still managed to create a conflict between leaders. That’s not a good place to be, and there’s a real management challenge in hammering out a common-sense position for Landa and Quintana, in preventing any more public airing of dirty laundry, and in establishing sensible season objectives for two similar riders. When the shouting is done, I assume we’ll see Quintana head back to the Giro, and thence to the Vuelta, and Landa take on the Tour. Or vice versa. Probably vice versa.

Either way, they have two leaders who can target the GC in the biggest races and both have chances. I think that Landa appears to be on an upward trajectory and if he goes to the Giro I wouldn’t be surprised to see him win. I suspect he’s a hair better than Quintana at the moment, given his superiority in skinsuits, but there isn’t much in it. For Movistar, they can expect high places in all three GCs, be optimistic of a podium or two, and hopeful of a win.

Valverde’s season is more of a question. Even though he’s 38, he showed no signs of slowing down before his injury last year and if he’s back to his best he’ll be dominant in the Ardennes once again. He might just fancy the Worlds course in Innsbruck and if so he’ll plan the second half of his season around that (which might mean the Tour or part of the Vuelta in a stage-hunting/support role). It is hard to see his presence helping to ease any tension between Nairo and Mikel.

For the rest of the squad, this is a year to support leaders and to develop youth. The likes of Amador, Fernandez, Roson and Betancur (great to see him ride a full year in 2017) will always provide solid support, particularly in the mountains, and it’ll be a rare race if the leaders are let down by a lack of help. There’s youth and talent in this squad, too. Richard Carapaz took huge strides in 2017 and I expect a big 2018 from him. Were it not for Landa, a Venezuelan GC hopeful would be my intriguing rider for the year. Marc Soler is another talented rider looking to build on a good 2017. Meanwhile, Castrillo, Bico and Sutterlin are all young riders who have ridden good time trials and might go on to greater things next year.

Movistar perpetually expect to be one of the leading teams, and there’s no doubt 2017 was a disappointing year. A refreshed roster and a new start should certainly lead to a better 2018, and if they can manage personalities they should be relevant all year, winning big races whilst also developing their next cadre of leaders.