Vuelta: Last hurrah for Valverde in Quintana’s inevitable rise?

Valverde and Quintana lead heavily favored Movistar into the Vuelta in what could be the final chapter in the transition of power

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Nairo Quintana (Movistar) yet again reconfirmed his class over the weekend, defending his title in the five-day Vuelta a Burgos race across northern Spain in his first race back in Europe since winning the Giro d’Italia in May.

There were maybe a half-dozen riders in the peloton who were up for a serious challenge, and “Kingtana” dispatched with all them with cool calculation that defies his still relatively young age of 24.

“It was very important for me, not just for the victory, but this gives me a lot of confidence before the Vuelta,” Quintana said Sunday. “I am sure there are rivals stronger than me at the moment, but this shows that we’ll be arriving [to the Vuelta] in good condition.”

Quintana’s third stage-race victory of the 2014 season came following a long, 70-day break from racing following his dramatic Giro victory. Quintana flew back to Europe last week, and within a few days, managed to deliver another spectacular overall victory.

Quintana won at the decisive Lagunas de Neila climbing stage Friday, then took back just enough in Sunday’s closing time trial to claim a narrow, three-second victory over 2012 Burgos winner Dani Moreno (Katusha).

That performance puts Quintana in idea position going into the Vuelta, which begins Saturday with a team time trial at Jerez de la Frontera. Movistar revealed its Vuelta nine on Monday, with 2009 Vuelta winner Alejandro Valverde starting as co-captain with Quintana.

This Vuelta sets the stage for the definitive passing of the baton within Movistar from Valverde to Quintana.

That process already started in last year’s Tour de France, when Valverde suffered a disastrous mechanical in the second week, opening the door for Quintana’s dramatic rise. The unproven Quintana withstood the pressure, delivering a mountain stage victory, the climber’s and best young rider’s jersey as well as second overall, the best Tour result ever by a Latin American rider.

That transition has continued all season long. Quintana hesitantly stood aside on team orders to give Valverde one final push for the Tour, and he promptly went to the Giro, and won. Valverde, despite an otherwise superb season, couldn’t deliver the knockout punch against his French podium rivals, and finished a bitter fourth place in Paris.

The pair return to the Vuelta for the first time together since 2012, in what was Quintana’s grand tour debut. Valverde rode to second overall behind Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), revealing just how fast things can change in cycling.

Valverde’s future with Movistar remains uncertain, and with the team fully backing its Colombian sensation going into 2015, when Quintana is all but sure to go full-gas for the Tour, it could set the stage for dissention within the Movistar ranks in its “home race.”

Movistar insists that Valverde and Quintana will line up with equal chances for the Vuelta, with the road eventually determining who will be the team’s GC captain.

“With Nairo and Alejandro, and with respect to our rivals, we will start with the intention of fighting for the GC,” said Movistar manager Eusebio Unzue in a team release Monday. “Nairo spent 70 days without racing, but revealed his professionalism by returning in good shape to compete. Alejandro is also important for us, and I believe he will be in the thick of thins for the GC battle. The race itself will decide who our leader is.”

That uncertainty could set up for some tension inside the Movistar bus. If rumors are true, Valverde is looking to try to get out of Movistar, where his contract is up at the end of this season, and is said to be in talks with the new Fernando Alonso project and other teams. He will want a strong performance to make up for his disappointing Tour, when he fell short of the podium in a chance of a lifetime, finishing fourth in Paris.

Quintana, meanwhile, doesn’t hide his ambitions. When VeloNews spoke to him last week before the start of Burgos, he said he’s going to the Vuelta with ambitions of victory, but said he would ride for others if he wasn’t up for the win himself.

“I am assuming more responsibility in every race I go to. My Giro victory was important because it confirmed I could win a grand tour. I am learning that every race I go to, I have pressure to win. It’s a pressure I like, but I have had to focus more than ever,” Quintana said. “I think I will be ready to contest for the Vuelta victory, but if I am not, I would gladly help one of my teammates who is stronger than me.”

Valverde and Quintana get along well, and often train together near Valverde’s home base in the mountains near Murcia. In fact, Valverde was one of Quintana’s earliest boosters, and has served as a mentor for the Colombian in his first years as a European pro.

At 34, Valverde is smart enough to see that Quintana’s star is on the rise, and with Movistar re-upping with the Colombian through 2015, realizes the writing is on the wall.

Valverde admitted as much after the Tour in an interview with Spanish radio.

“Was it my last chance? I don’t know. Look at [Jean-Christophe] Peraud, he’s 37, and he ends up second. I am not going to obsess about it,” Valverde said in July. “I know that Nairo is coming up very strong. Above all, I am a realist, and we all know that he’s going to be stronger than me, and that’s it.”

It must be a hard position for Valverde, who is otherwise at the top of his game. With his victory earlier this month at the Clásica San Sebastián, he leads the UCI World Tour rankings, yet he’s finding himself outflanked by the younger, more prolific Quintana.

It’s a similar situation to what unfolded at Team Sky in the wake of the 2012 Tour. Bradley Wiggins won the Tour, but was eclipsed the following year with the rise of Chris Froome.

Movistar, as Spain’s last major team, will be under heavy pressure to deliver the Vuelta victory. With a hobbled Contador and an uncertain Froome, Movistar will start the Vuelta as the major favorite for the red jersey. It will be interesting to watch how the team handles the competing interests of Quintana and Valverde, and if they can still deliver victory in Madrid.

But as Valverde is the first to admit, he is a realist, and there’s no denying Quintana’s magical power on the pedals.

Valverde will also have one eye on the world championships, which are held on Spanish roads just one week after the Vuelta ends in Galicia on September 14. Rather than fight the inevitable, Valverde might use the Vuelta as a three-week training camp to prepare for the worlds.

A crisp, new rainbow jersey would do a lot toward reasserting his position within the peloton. At least for one year, anyway.

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