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Three weeks out from the Tour de France, Enric Mas has abandoned the Critérium du Dauphiné before its final day, a blow that will be felt particularly acutely given Movistar’s proximity to the relegation zone.
“In order to prioritise his recovery, after the blows and discomfort caused by his crash on Thursday, Enric Mas concludes his presence at the Dauphiné,” the team wrote on social media. “See you very soon, friend!”
En aras de priorizar su recuperación, después de los golpes y molestias producidos por su caída del jueves, @EnricMasNicolau concluye su presencia en el 🇫🇷 #Dauphiné. ¡Nos vemos muy pronto, amigo!@MatteoJorg arrancará el último día de la ronda alpina en 8ª plaza de la general. pic.twitter.com/1ZlmsOqXpu— Movistar Team (@Movistar_Team) June 12, 2022
The Spaniard was feeling the effects of a heavy crash on stage 5, and after bearing the pain through Friday, Mas was unable to recover in time for the weekend mountain showdown. The writing was on the wall when two of his climbing teammates, Gregor Mühlberger and Carlos Verona, got into Saturday’s breakaway, clearly given the freedom to ride for themselves.
With Verona staying away to take stage 7 victory, his first professional win, Mas was unable to stick with his GC rivals and ultimately made it to Vaujany 17 minutes after his teammate.
“Enric was the leader, and that crash really affected him a lot,” teammate Matteo Jorgenson told VeloNews after stage 7. The young American is now Movistar’s highest placed rider in eighth overall going into the final stage. “Half of the skin on his left-hand side was gone, and it was really hard to sleep. We were hoping for the best, he’s in such great shape. These things happen.”
Saturday’s was a classic tale of triumph in the face of adversity for the storied Spanish team, a stalwart of top-tier bike racing for a staggering 42 years. And the success enjoyed by both Verona and Matteo Jorgensen is testament to the strength of the team being built around arguably the biggest goal of the season.
Mas has finished in the top six in five out of seven career Grand Tour appearances, including sixth and second at the Tour and Vuelta last year. The 27-year-old is without doubt one of the world’s very best climbers, and despite the hefty 53 time trial kilometres at this year’s edition, he and Movistar have had their sites set firmly on a solid Tour this year.
Sadly for Verona, the hard luck that has befallen Mas – and by extension, the whole team – this week may mean stage 7 victory does little to soothe Movistar’s stress as we count down to July 1.
After an unremarkable Giro d’Italia, where pre-race co-leaders Alejandro Valverde and Ivan Sosa finished 11th and 49th overall, and the team came away with a handful of top-three stage results, Movistar was really beginning to feel the pressure of potential relegation. They’re a team that typically enjoys success in the summer and later in the season when mountains are the order of the day, but floundering at 16th in the virtual table is not where they want to be.
The situation has forced the team to make some unconventional decisions around scheduling, with the singular aim to gather points, and Movistar boss Eusebio Unzué is not happy.
“There are six or seven of us [teams] who are having to race to get points. It’s madness,” Unzué told CyclingNews. “With all due respect, I think we should be racing to guarantee the spectacle of cycling.
“The points system needs to be reformed. It doesn’t seem logical to me that in order to stay in the first division, we have to go and search for points in the second and third divisions. You try and explain that to fans of other sports. It doesn’t make any sense.”
On Saturday, Verona’s Dauphiné stage win (WorldTour level) earned him 60 points, while Oscar Riesebeek – riding for ProTeam Alpecin-Fenix, which currently sits seventh in the standings – took 200 for winning the 1.Pro Dwars Door Het Hageland on the same day. For more comparison, Alejandro Valverdo took Movistar’s first win of the season back in January at the third division Trofeo Pollença – Port d’Antratx (1.1) which carried 125 points.
“I understand the system was created with good intentions but it’s not fair,” Unzué continued. “We need to think about how we can make it more meritorious, logical, reasonable, proportional to the quality of the riders. The points you obtain often don’t do justice to what you did in the race, and that’s another problem. It’s artificial. We have to value other things.”
With Mas licking his wounds, Unzué has been making last-minute call-ups, asking ever-faithful Valverde to cut short his post-Giro break in order to race a couple of relatively minor French races.
“We’re going there to race with him like we always do, to win, but at the same time we’re trying to score points, obviously,” Unzué said of next week’s Mont Ventoux Dénivelé Challenge and Route d’Occitanie. “Fortunately, Alejandro has been, as ever, exemplary. He’s the first to be willing to do what needs to be done. He’s aware that we’re a little obliged to go after some points, because that’s what the system demands. It’s unthinkable, really, but that’s the situation we find ourselves in.”
With the WorldTour wildcard setup being what it is, Unzué and his peers are forced to ask themselves whether relegation would actually be so bad. If you’re a top-ranked ProTeam, you’re guaranteed an invite to WorldTour races, but unlike WorldTeams you can turn the invite down – like Arkéa-Samsic did for the 2022 Giro d’Italia – freeing your riders up for those high-scoring smaller races.
“If you’re in 19th or 20th, you can even end up in a more privileged position,” Unzué said. “You end up not knowing if it’s better or worse to finish bottom. The system has to change.”
But then you risk a bad year and a third spot in the ProTeam standings, which means fewer high-scoring opportunities, lower funds, less screen time, disgruntled sponsors, etc… It’s a bit of a Catch-22. And with their highest scorer Valverde set to retire at the end of 2022, that’s not a risk Movistar is likely to take.