On the PodCafSt, Andrew, Conor and I had a good go at Team Movistar, a/k/a Team Unzue, a/k/a the National Team of Spain. The subject was a mix of roster construction and season goals, and the bottom line is that they suck at both so far in 2018. Gone are a number of big engine guys like Adriano Malori (retired due to neurological issues from a horror crash) as well as Alex Dowsett, Jonathan Castroviejo and the Herrada brothers (bungled into the waiting arms of various rivals). In place of all of them comes Mikel Landa, period, end of discussion. And they got him to race the Tour, alongside Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde. Because why have a single leader and orderly raft of support riders when you can have a trio of mountain goats struggling alone to stay on their bikes for most or all of the Mons-en-Pévèle secteur of Greater Roubaix?
The team seems about as misfit as Movi ever have, which isn’t saying all that much because for the past six years it’s been Valverde’s team mostly with maybe room for Nairo Quintana to try to win the Giro or the Tour. Quintana was the anointed successor, and Eusebio Unzue would keep chasing his yellow dreams for another decade. Except then Quintana stopped looking like a Tour winner, and even stopped being a Giro winner last year, which isn’t the final chapter of his story but doesn’t bode well for the next one.
And just as Quintana began looking unprepared to take the baton from Valverde, Valverde stopped wanting to give it to him. The Murcian’s career, still shadowed by his early days and the role of his dog in cycling’s existential struggle, has gone on and on rather inconveniently. As orderly transfers of power go, this one fell apart, and Valverde is the guy who won’t let go. The thing that wouldn’t leave. The kid still living in his parents’ basement at age... 37.
Are those two matters related? To dredge up another metaphor, I’m reminded of my kid’s school from a few years back, whose head of school was also the founder 25 years earlier. Apparently small private schools all struggle when their founder moves on before (hopefully) graduating on to a new and more permanent identity. Only the founder decided to stay on after stepping down, as a regular teacher, which in due course made the job of her successor as school head fundamentally impossible. [It worked out fine, eventually.]
And so it goes with Movi, whose biggest legend since the days of Indurain is still hanging around, overseeing the transfer of his considerable power. From Quintana’s perspective, think about it: you’re relatively young and sort of accomplished but lacking your primary goal. You are the helmsman of a Spanish team, the Spanish team, only you’re from a little mountain village 5000 miles away, selling yourself to the sophisticated Spanish public. You want the beloved fading star to support you, ideally by truly fading, but if not, then at least to help you out. Which he does, but in a way that makes it clear he’s taking his job back the moment you slip up. You’re the leader, but he’s the co-leader, or something. Would any bit of this make you feel secure?
I can’t read Quintana’s mind, but he clearly yearns for real support, like what his rival Chris Froome has, not this veneer of support that looks suspiciously like Plan B. I don’t fully understand why riders talk so much about having the absolute loyalty of their team — if you’re best climber and your team can support you enough, maybe it’s OK? -- except that they say it all the time so it ain’t nothing. Also it’s not hard to watch a truly well-run team (e.g., vintage Sky) for three weeks and identify ways in which everyone on the roster contributed to the leader’s success. Up close, I’m sure this is even more obvious. So whether full support is absolutely necessary is debatable, but it’s clear why he would want it. In the era of marginal gains, every little bit helps.
Quintana’s 2017 season seemed like the cap to two years of racing at the Tour without what one would call noticeable confidence. He went to the Giro instead, presumably to re-establish his grand tour credentials, since he’s won twice there, and got smacked in the mouth instead. This cost him every aspect of his status as a Tour de France contender, since losing the Giro is neither a good omen nor good physical prep for winning the Tour. So naturally he pronounced himself the team’s Tour de France leader for 2018, a statement that was met with mostly derision as far as I can tell.
Valverde is coming off a wrecked knee that derailed his season at the start of the Tour de France, but he says he’ll be fine. Of course, he’ll also be 38. And as of October he told anyone who’d listen that his plan was to use the Giro and Vuelta as springboards to his lone remaining goal, a world championship on the climbers’ course in Innsbruck. Ba-da-boom, ba-da-bing, now he’s doing the Tour. Back when he was a wee lad of 36, he was last seen finishing sixth at the Tour, more than six minutes back, but the asterisk there is that he’d had a Giro in his legs. So dial back one year further into Valverde’s youth, when at age 35 he got on the podium... five minutes back. This puts him in his age 38 year on course for finishing a good eight minutes back.
Finally, there is Landa. In his age 28 season he will be coming off Team Sky and the domestique duties that implies, to try and win a grand tour, something he’s never come all that close to apart from a third in the Giro when his teammate and captain Fabio Aru finished second. The Basque climber has bristled at the idea of doing any more domestique duty and was initially dismayed by Quintana’s comments of who’s the boss. Stop me when these details sound like the mark of a winning team.
But here’s the thing: it can totally still work. They can win the Tour. Here’s a short list of things to like about Movistar’s approach of sending a three-captain squad to the Vendee in July.
- Having two leaders usually doesn’t turn out to be better than one, but having three leaders might. Yes, they might work against each other, but unless we are talking about Nairo chasing down Landa and dragging, oh, Bardet along — in other words, acting completely insane — I’m not sure what the problem will be. Most of the time having multiple guys up front gives the team options to play their strongest hand, and if you have two guys going really well, they can both attack, or take turns isolating rivals and attacking. Really, unless you screw it up, it’s an advantage. And unlike two captains, who both still feel the pressure of leadership, I would think that having three top guys starts to maybe thin out the pressure that any one of them will feel.
- The rumors of early polemica have been washed away by now, following some team bonding where among other things, Landa and Quintana were handcuffed together in prison garb for a skit, Landa bearing his “free Landa!” quip around his neck. The ice has been broken.
- Valverde might not be the guy he was, but of the three it sounds like he’s most clearly in a supporting role. The two stories about his calendar were a couple months apart, and I don’t know if doing the Tour still has him on track for the Worlds, but would have to guess that it does. Valverde has always had a certain power in the team, and I can’t believe that’s suddenly changed. Anyway, he’s one guy you can picture being truly useful on the cobblestones of northern France. If he can shepherd the other two mountain men along, his worth to them will have been immense.
- Landa sounds like a guy whose heart is with the Giro, an ongoing theme this offseason despite having long since passed by the crazy stage. The two races (Giro and Tour) are one week closer together than usual, leading to speculation that a Giro guy could pull off a strong final week in France. If Landa got on the podium — against the cream of all of cycling — then he will likely have burnt a ton of matches and could only be counted on for some late mayhem in France. But you never know.
- In the unfolding scenario either Landa skips the Giro, or he comes in as a clear wildcard and helper to Quintana. Which means the three-headed monster is really just Quintana with an all-star supporting cast. I actually am not rooting for this, I want to see the go-mental approach where they’re all just full gas for the win. But the alternative is a conventionally loaded team, and one that maybe only comes together after a process in which Quintana tones down the entitlement a bit? We’ll see about that...
- In my dream scenario they all skip the Giro for the Tour and just bomb away at it, with diminished egos (toward each other anyway) and with the freedom to launch whoever is feeling it that day to attack the peloton — a Froome-and-Doom-less peloton at that. Landa and Quintana have both had moments where they looked like possible winners if they could play their cards right, but Quintana fell short and Landa was hemmed in, just last summer, by his then-captain Froome. I’m not sure I can talk myself into calling either a favorite to win, but without the pressure applied in the person of Froome (whose season is a complete unknown now), it’s not hard to picture either or both of them becoming very dangerous. Both riders will be liberated from rerunning their past defeats at the Tour, and in their minds maybe those defeats aren’t so debilitating anymore. Maybe they both come in hungrier than in the past, readier to attack, and the aggressive spirit becomes an echo throughout the Movistar team bus.
Maybe. That’s my best-case scenario for them. If Froome can’t start the Tour and we are left to crown a first-time winner (sorry Vinny), then the dynamics of the 2018 Tour will be vastly changed from the recent past. In such a scenario, Movistar will play the heavies, and it should be very intriguing to watch.