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Offseason Capsule: Movistar

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Not a cobbles juggernaut, but impressive uphill

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There aren’t many riders who’ve had as good a season aged 38 as Valverde put together. Whilst there were some positive signs for the future, this was another year where Movistar looked far too close to a one-man team.

What we said last year

Last year’s coverage was pretty down on the team’s performance in 2017 and concerned about the lack of “middle” to the squad, a concern amplified in the comments. I saw progress for Carapaz and Soler, and was optimistic about Landa’s chances in the Giro, though a little less positive about Quintana in the Tour. I mentioned the Ardennes and the Worlds for Valverde, which hardly took clairvoyance. All in all, a reasonable enough preview of a predictable enough season.

Most of it was dedicated to discussing the team’s approach to grand tours, and you should prepare for more of the same below.

What we got in 2018

As is so often the case, the season began in earnest for this squad in Valencia, where Valverde was quickly into form, winning two stages and the overall. He then headed to Abu Dhabi, where he took another stage and the overall, whilst Dayer Quintana confused casual fans everywhere by taking a stage of his home race in which his big brother fought for the overall.

With racing back in Europe Landa was able to grab a stage of Tirenno Adriatico and fifth overall, whilst Piti was fourth in Strade Bianche, but to widespread surprise it was in France that week that the team tasted success. On a foul final day of Paris-Nice, Marc Soler left the rest of the race leaders in his wake and in a harum-scarum finish narrowly held on, taking third on the day and squeaking ahead of Yates for the overall win.

After that victory came the classics season, and there were no wins for Movistar, though Valverde (who else) was astoundingly competitive in Dwars (ultimately finishing 11th), and less surprisingly competitive in the Ardennes. He didn’t win, but 5th in Amstel, 2nd in Fleche and 13th in Liege is a good week for anyone else.

Yo, Julian, that’s where I stand.
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After bringing Landa into the fold, I wasn’t alone in expecting to see him or Quintana lead the Giro squad, but Unzue was adamant that they would both, with Valverde, head to France, so Richard Carapaz headed up the Giro squad. He jumped into the top ten with a win on the mountain-top finish of stage 8 and never looked back. Ultimately, he narrowly lost out to Lopez for the white jersey and an overall podium, but his fourth place was a fantastic result.

In France, the trident was brushed aside by the Sky machine and Tom Dumoulin. Nairo Quintana did win the exciting short mountain stage and all three finished in the top 12, but none looked like winning and the experiment of three leaders was far from an unalloyed success. Quintana (8th) and Valverde (5th, with two stage wins and the points jersey) went on to ride well in the Vuelta but it wasn’t until he pulled on his Spanish jersey that Valverde delivered the biggest result of the season for his trade team, winning the world road race in Innsbruck.

When the dust had settled, the team took home 27 victories. 14 of those, including the most prestigious, were down to one man.

FSA-DS Ranking 2018

9th – Firmly in that 7-8k middle class, which isn’t great. With Valverde picking up 3404 on his own, that isn’t good at all. One place higher than 2017, when far more went wrong.

Top Highlights

1. Alejandro Valverde starts 2019 in rainbows, having made winning on a very tough worlds course look as straightforward as you could expect. It was an obvious void on a hall of fame palmares and one that he was evidently thrilled to fill.

2. I talked about developing the next group of leaders in last year’s capsule, but I didn’t see Richard Carapaz’s Giro coming. In just his second grand tour, which wrapped up just before his 25th birthday, he finished fourth against a very strong field and climbed as well as anyone. There’s a crowded field of possible future grand tour winners, but the Ecuadorian rocketed up the list with that out-of-nowhere performance.

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3. Marc Soler’s rise to GC threat has been more widely foreseen for longer, but his run early in the season was fantastic. Third in Andalucia and fifth in Catalunya gave him two excellent results against strong fields, but they were sandwiching a win in Paris-Nice on a tough course that demanded he showed the full breadth of his talent and fought all the way to the line in Nice, eventually beating Simon Yates in the overall by just four seconds.

Bottom Lowlights

1. I think Movistar were lucky to get away with a fourth in the Giro, as they can’t have expected that performance from Carapaz. Taking Quintana, Landa, Valverde and Soler to the Tour was overkill, and they must have expected more than a fairly anonymous seventh (Landa) to show for it. Quintana’s solo win on the short mountain stage was a race highlight but wasn’t good enough for that star-studded octet.

The 2018 “best team on paper” winners!
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2. Valverde’s worlds were a highlight but his usual dominance in the Ardennes was missing in 2018, and you have to wonder if it was a result of old father time knocking. I’d been unsure if he would be ready after his horror-crash in 2017, but his early-season form but that worry to rest. He simply didn’t have an answer for ALaphilippe’s sprint in Fleche and was out-gunned in Liege. He’ll turn 39 before the next running of his favourite monument and even he must be in danger of slowing down.

3. Yes, this is a grand tour team and yes, the GC results were good all year. However, if you want to know why this team are ranked in the also-rans on VDS points, look no further than the one-day races. Worlds aside, they won Indurain (Valverde), Primavera (Amador) and Aragon (Roson). That’s it. Nothing outside of Spain and nothing with any meaningful prestige. Not good enough.

Comings and goings for 2019

Ins: Carlos Verona (Mitchelton-Scott), Jürgen Roelandts (Lotto-Soudal), Eduard Prades (Euskadi), Lluis Mas (Caja Rural)

Outs: Victor de la Parte (CCC), Dayer Quintana (Neri Sotolli), Nuno Bico (Burgos), Jamie Roson (?)

Renewals: Marc Soler, Imano Erviti, Andrey Amador, Daniele Bennati

Compared to previous years, this is a relatively peaceful off-season with limited turnover. Prades, Verona and Mas will give a little mountain support (I loved the signing of Mas, though others are less optimistic) and will make up for the departing riders, of whom de la Parte will perhaps be most missed. Roson’s midseason suspension, relating to a 2017 biological passport irregularity (at Caja Rural) is doubtless a blow for the team on the road as well as in PR terms.

de la parte? More like deParte, amirite?
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The most interesting signing is Roelandts, joining his second team since leaving Lotto-Soudal in 2017, as he was caught in the collapse of BMC. He’s a valuable rider, hugely experienced on the Belgian roads and capable of good performances (though it is a while since his Ronde podium, in 2013). He can also sprint, as he’s proved with a third and a fifth in Milan-San Remo. He’ll be one of the few on this squad who look forward to riding cobbles, and will be of use to Piti if he again targets Ronde (this is currently expected) whilst being able to freelance in the semi-classics. If I were Jurgen, I’d want more classics specialists around me, but this makes sense for the team.

Most intriguing rider

Plenty to choose from, and I’m certainly interested in what Quintana can do, whist I could copy and paste my Landa comments from last year and they’d still be of value. On balance, though, it is Marc Soler who grabs my attention.

You can make a case for him as a thrilling rider. As you’ll note in the highlights, his run of weeklong stage performances in the spring was great, and gave him a first win at WT level, and he also continued his development with a second Grand Tour (and first in the circus that is France) completed. He is following a logical and careful process of progression and that’s to be applauded.

On the other hand, surely he’s now been overtaken by the more upwardly-mobile Carapaz? The two riders are approximately the same age, and Soler is significantly more experienced, yet there’s no comparison between the two on the biggest stage. Look beyond Movistar and you see many more riders of Soler’s age or similar who have achieved far more.

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I still think he’s an awfully good all-round package. He is on track for a very good career indeed. I do think he needs to make some noise in the 2019 grand tours (currently he’s slated to ride in France, supporting Landa and Quintana) if he wants to be seen as a potential leader in those races. There’s no shame in a Spilak/Izagirre career with a speciality for week-long races, but I don’t think that’s what anyone expects for Marc. I’m intrigued to see if he can leap back onto a Tour trajectory this year.

So, what happens next?

I’ve talked about the Movistar GC plan and it looks a little better than 2018’s, but still not especially sensible. That’s a problem, because it is Grand Tours that will pay the bills for this team. Landa is scheduled to ride in both the Giro and the Tour, because apparently you simply can’t teach anyone anything in professional cycling. In the Giro, he’ll be joined by Carapaz and Valverde, whilst Quintana and Soler head to France. At the moment, and take this for what it is worth, Quintana and Valverde are heading for the Vuelta.

What all that means is that the shape of the season should look fairly similar for most riders. This is still Valverde’s team and he is planning to show the rainbows off in a massive number of races early in the year, with his usual array of warm up races plus Catalunya, Strade Bianche, Milan-San Remo, Dwars, Flanders, the Ardennes week and the Giro. For anyone else, I’d say that was an impossible run of races to be completed at top form, but I’m done predicting Piti’s seasons. He’s a beast and he might just win all of them. More seriously, he needs to ride very well to hold off Julian Alaphilippe’s challenge in the Ardennes but he could well do it. I’m also fascinated to see him in de Ronde.

For all the team’s investment in grand tour riding, it is hard to them threatening the podium in France, with competition stiff. Landa’s dual duty weakens his chances in the Giro, and I assume that Valverde will be running on fumes by the end of that race. Carapaz will be looking to repeat his successes of last year and he just might do so. Come France, I am pesmistic about Quintana’s chances whilst Soler, as discussed, needs to show he can ride well for a full three weeks. Quintana is one to watch in the Vuelta, however, especially if he carries better form into the race than he managed during a lacklustre 2018 race.

The Yorkshire course means that the Worlds look out of reach for most of this squad. They will be looking to compete for every general classification going and are a threat in most of them. In Carapaz and Soler they have two talented young leaders, whilst Landa and Quintana are stars, but blemished. As a one-day unit, this is Valverde and not much else, but, for at least one more year, he’s enough.