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Start-of-Season Team Preview: A Fading Movistar?

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40th Vuelta a Murcia 2020 - Stage 1
Valverde, showing off his new chair exercises for seniors training program.
Photo by Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Things are not looking too sunny in Spain. With a mass rider exodus, the ravages of old age perhaps finally catching up to Alejandro Valverde, and an incoming class of relatively unknown, unproven, and/or unimpressive riders, Movistar is staring into the abyss of a potentially miserable 2020 season.

Here’s the brass tacks of the comings and goings, with Andrey Amador this week being added to the departure board:

Riders departing: Nairo Quintana (Arkea), Richard Carapaz (INEOS), Mikel Landa (Bahrain), Daniele Bennati (retired), Andrey Amador (INEOS), Carlos Barbero (NTT), Jasha Sutterlin (Sunweb), Rafael Valls (Bahrain), Winner Anacona (Arkea), Ruben Fernandez (Fundacion-Orbea), Jaime Castrillo (Equipo Kern Pharma), Jaime Roson (doper prison).

Riders arriving: Enric Mas, Dario Cataldo, Davide Villella, Mathias Norsgaard, Juri Hollmann, Albert Torres, Gabriel Cullaigh, Matteo Jorgenson, Johan Jacobs, Einer Augusto Rubio, Sergio Samitier, Inigo Elosegui, Juan Diego Alba, Sebastian Mora.

Movistar didn’t have a half bad season last year either In the FSA DS ranking they were 9th, with 8,369 points and amassed 21 victories, including the Giro victory. However, when you look at last year’s results through the prism of the departing riders, the picture is pretty dire:

Of the retained riders not interested in Matlock reruns, Carlos Barbero won a stage of the Tour of Austria, Eduard Prades won the Vuelta Aragon and a stage of the Tour de La Provence, and Carlos Betancur won the Klasika Primavera de Amorebieta. All of these races were no higher than X.1 and the Klasika Primavera has been cancelled.

The most impressive victory for Movistar in 2019 was Richard Carapaz’s Giro victory, Movistar’s first grand tour win since Nairo Quintana’s 2016 Vuelta win. Unfortunately for Movistar, Carapaz finds himself drafted into the Skineos army for this year.

While Nairo Quintana did not find himself on the top step (or even near the podium) of any grand tours in 2019, he did bring Movistar its only Tour de France stage win as well as a Vuelta stage win. However, Nairoman has flown off to Arkea-Samsic for the season.

Even though Mikel Landa did not podium a grand tour, he did provide a useful trident prong to assist in Carapaz’s Giro victory. Landa will be raising eyebrows with Bahrain-Mclaren in 2020.

The only signing of note was Enric Mas, and even if he’s one of the most promising Spanish potential GC stars, trying to fill the cleats of Quintana, Landa, and Carapaz is just not possible.

So, WTF happened? As far as I can tell, it has nothing to do with sponsorship or financial issues, but rather the cabeza dura of Movistar paterfamilias Eusebio Unzue. During negotiations for Richard Carapaz’s talents, Unzue was insulted by Carapaz’s agent, Giuseppe Acquadro. Unzue told the super-agent who controls most of the biggest Latin American talents that he wouldn’t sign any of his riders any more. Acquadro apparently accepted Unzue’s “offer,” and said in return he would not bring any of his clients to Movistar, but rather to Movistar’s rival Ineos. It’s clear who has won in that deal. Movistar now finds itself shut out of access to top Latin American talent and the rest of Acquadro’s stable of riders and finds itself unwittingly becoming a feeder team for Ineos.

The big question this year will be whether Valverde can defeat entropy? If I was a hack, cycling-focused, stand-up comedian (and not a hack blogger), I’d have a whole line up of “Valverde is so old” jokes. Valverde so old, when he removed his chamois, Fausto Coppi fell out. Valverde so old, his wins were tallied on a Procyclingstats abacus. Valverde so old, he was riding for Movistar back when it was named Movinebula. I’ll be here all night. Try the EPO special.

But seriously. Valverde is turning 40 the day prior to Liege-Bastogne-Liege this year. That’s ancient in cycling years. The decline is coming. The only question is whether the decline is going to be gradual or a freefall. He was pretty consistent last year, but perhaps the wins were not as frequent as they had been in the past. This year, he’s started the season in non-Valverde like fashion, with a 10th place finish in Valenciana, a race that he’s won three times, including last year. He looked sluggish, being unable to follow the wheel of Tadej Pogacar on an uphill finish that suited Valverde perfectly.

At the same time, perhaps the reports of Valverde’s death are greatly exaggerated. Valverde has his eyes set on the Olympics this year, and maybe he knows his body well enough to know that he can no longer stay in peak form throughout the year. And even though he was beaten by Pog on that short uphill sprint, he still managed to hold off Dan Martin and Dylan Teuns. Whatever the case, Movistar will need some of Valverde’s elderly explosiveness if they hope to achieve much success this year.

The remainder of Movistar’s hopes and dreams this year can be appropriately called the Vitamin D plan— more sun. Enric Mas and Marc Soler will need to shine bright. Mas comes over from Quick Step after a bit of a disappointing season following his 2nd place in the Vuelta in 2018. Mas fell apart in the 3rd week of the Tour, following a time trial that saw him surge into fourth place. He ultimately finished well outside of the top 10. Mas did finish the year strongly with a win at the Tour of Guangxi, even though the competition was not necessarily premier quality. While he would have ostensibly had more support at Movistar than Quick Step, after the mass departures, that’s far from a guarantee.

Cycling Tour Of Guangxi - Stage Six
Patrick Lafevere sent his witch gondoliers after Mas, forcing him to flee to Movistar.
Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Marc Soler also saw a downturn in results in 2019, following a season in which he showed the Betancur-like potential by winning Paris-Nice in 2018. As a support player in Movi’s trident strategy last year, Soler clearly was not happy. This year he’ll get his wish though as there will be ample opportunity at a team bereft of tines.

As to the younger pool of cyclists coming in, Movistar was able to obtain the first and second loser in the baby Giro behind Carmila Ardila with the signing of Einer Augusto Rubio and Juan Diego Alba. Alba seems to be the rawer of the two, while Rubio has had some decent results in the u23 ranks to go along with the baby Giro podium.

Movistar also decided to go more international and less climby with some of their younger talent— including bringing in a British sprinter in Gabriel Cullaigh, the Swiss 2nd place finisher in the baby Paris-Roubaix in Johan Jacobs, and the first American on their team since Andy Hampsten in 1995 in Matteo Jorgenson. Led by Jurgen Roelandts and Imanol Erviti, Movistar will now have a cobbled classics squad to rival that of Euskaltel-Euskadi.

So, how will 2020 actually play out for the boys and old men in white and blue? Their season rests upon the fortunes of their new trident— Valverde, Mas, and Soler. It’s going to be a strange year, though, with all three slated to go to the Tour. That means that Movistar, the team that won last year’s Giro, will not be going for GC in this year’s Giro, which could result in the once unthinkable proposition of Carlos Betancur (who’s going to be huge this year— h/t to wannabe scattista) wearing the number 1 jersey in a grand tour. Can Mas and Soler hold up to the pressure of carrying the hopes of their team on their shoulders? Will Valverde suplex Father Time into submission? I’m leaning hard in answering “no” to both questions, but all three have somehow coerced their way into drafts of my FSA-DS team and we all know that FSA-DS selection trumps logic, sound reasoning, statistical support, and good taste, so while my mind says “no,” my heart remains cautiously optimistic.