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Do You Want to be a Movistar?

Landa Quintana Movistar Suisse Tim de Waele/Getty Images

When Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France, Team Sky had a plan of getting him onto the podium of the Tour that seemed like it was on rails. Paris-Nice, check. Dauphiné, check. Jiffy bag, check. Everything went perfectly, and when it looked like his team mate Froome might challenge his leadership, he asserted his place in yellow fairly strongly. That is the Sky way of doing things, and we’ll see it again this month with Froome. On the other side of the spectrum, we have the Movistar way: throw your riders at the wall, and see who sticks. And so....

Let’s Meet the Contenders!

Landa Suisse Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Here we have Mikel.

Cycling: 52nd Tirreno-Adriatico 2017 / Stage 7
Cycling: 52nd Tirreno-Adriatico 2017 / Stage 7
Corbis Sport

This is Nairo.

Tim de Waele/Getty Images

And say hi to Alejandro.

So yes, midway through last year’s Tour, then Sky rider Landa put in a very good performance as Froome faltered on Peyragudes. And then an even better one as he attacked on the way to Foix. There was a frankly weird outpouring of wishes for Landa to take the race by the scruff of the neck and win it himself, which of course didn’t happen, but it made the Basque rider a hot piece of real estate in the ensuing transfer rush. Opinions were bandied about — he’d go to UAE Emirates, he’d end up at Astana, no, he’d be better off staying at Sky...but in the end it was Movistar who forked out for him. This was a fairly controversial topic at the time, with a common opinion seeming to be that he’s end up being the Spanish squad’s Giro leader — hardly a better position than he had at Sky. However, I don’t think what has actually happened was a very common prediction at the time.

I don’t know if Unzue wanted one of them to head to the Giro originally, but as it is he’s certainly embracing the situation which is presenting itself to him, giving an extraordinarily positive interview last week in which he expressed optimism that this method of riding the Tour could finally break the system which has dominated the Tours de France of the last six or seven years, hinting that the Movistar strategy of choice could be to attack on the earlier climbs of the day in order to turn the screw on Froome. So to see how this could work for them, we might learn a little from the way they’ve ridden in years previous.

With all the hype about having three leaders, I think we’re tending to forget how in most years since 2013, Movistar have in fact come to the Tour with two leaders, with the caveat that one was usually expected to kow-tow to the other. Take 2015 for example — Quintana and Valverde came to the Tour, ostensibly both as leaders. They took the bottom two steps on the podium, with Valverde working for Quintana by the end of the race to give him the best shot at winning a race he really never had a prayer in. For a better analogue, we have to go two years further back in time, to 2013. Stage nine of that race, to be more accurate. Then, Valverde (third on GC at the time) and Quintana (eighth) kept on attacking Froome in the Pyrenees, isolating him from his team mates and putting him under some of the most pressure he has faced in his five years as de facto King of Le Tour. On that day, Froome survived, much enhancing his own reputation and convincing most that that Tour de France would be his. It will be Movistar’s aim, with three riders capable of inflicting pain on him, to make more than one stage so difficult to Froome, and perhaps to send him out the back.

So what are their chances of doing that? Well, they hinge on being able to keep their three riders (or at least two of them) as credible GC threats. If Landa loses twenty minutes before the race even reaches the Alps, he can attack all he likes without causing any stress to Froome, or whoever may be in yellow. To that end, the first week will be crucial. That’s not a complex bit of punditry, it’s just the truth. Stage nine is obviously the red letter day, with its twenty-odd kilometres of cobbles unlikely to suit the light climbers of Movistar (Well, actually, Valverde will probably be fine. Landa and Quintana, maybe less so). I’d like to posit that the three rider strategy is not based around getting one guy through the first week in a position to challenge, but actually relies completely on having multiple threats, à la La Vie Claire thirty-or-so years ago. The lack of domestiques available to Movistar shows what they intend to do — they don’t want to be lined out on the front at any point in this Tour, preferring instead to let other teams pull and burn matches, as their three GC men wait to take advantage of their rivals’ tiredness.

But none of this answers the main question about Movistar — who should in fact take primacy, a question which I will attempt to answer after saying this: not Valverde. He’ll be a threat, and he’ll probably put Froome, Porte and their ilk under pressure on the mountain stages but he’s just not going to win the Tour in any sequence of events that are not incredibly weird. So that leaves two: Landa and Quintana.

Now it’s here where a little bit of my bias as a writer comes in: Nairo Quintana has disappointed me one too many times. When he roared onto the scene in 2013 I was as caught up as the next man in the excitement about the young Colombian climber, and to be honest I did expect a Tour win from him to follow soon. A quick stop to win the Giro in 2014 later, it seemed written in stone. Maybe in 2015? No, Froome amassed a good lead in the first week before blowing Quintana away along with everybody else on La-Pierre-Saint-Martin. The year after, then? Again, no. He looked in a good place to put the hurt on Froome on Mont Ventoux, but didn’t have the legs, falling to third in Paris. A win in the Vuelta followed thanks to a daring stage fifteen raid, but last year he couldn’t back up his good start in the Giro before lack of form and lack of legs sunk him to twelfth last July. He’s currently third favourite for the race, but as far as I’m concerned, I have trouble trusting (if that’s the right word) him to have what it takes to bury his rivals and to avoid a bad day at this level. Which, despite having two Grand Tours to his name, no, he has not done before. Comparing a Vuelta to anything is a fairly fallacious thing to do — there are too many variables. Even if you were to try, his raid on Aramon Formigal will be difficult to replicate here. As will the circumstances that led to his Giro win, unless the weather changes considerably. Quintana’s stock price, however, is improved by his good performance in the Tour de Suisse, winning a mountain stage on the way to third place in the general classification of a race in which he vastly outperformed Landa.

Undoubtedly, Quintana has more experience at this level than Landa. He has shown a lot more this year. He’s rated higher by the bookies. Therefore, I understand why you may find it weird that I think Mikel Landa is Movistar’s best shot at winning this race. He has never gone into a Grand Tour as leader. He has not shown much this season. He has not got a great time-trial. But he has shown an ability to deliver and to shine in the last week of Grand Tours either way. An ability which I think will shine through this July. Not to mention — if the peloton underestimates him as some people seem to be, Landa could get away early on a mountain stage as Quintana. In doing so, the Basque rider could find himself the beneficiary of Movistar’s three-pronged attack.