Alejandro Valverde and his final mission: Save Movistar’s WorldTour license

Valverde's ride during the Vuelta could determine the WorldTour future of Spanish stalwarts.

Photo: Dario Belingheri/Getty Images

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If Alejandro Valverde was hoping for a quiet but competitive retirement parade as he pedals into the sunset over the next few weeks, he’s in for a shock.

With his Movistar team languishing at the bottom of the team points rankings and its future as a WorldTour-level team for 2023 hanging in the balance, Spain’s “Green Bullet” is going to be leaned on to fire a few more shots.

If Movistar wants to be assured it can keep its place in the WorldTour, it all but needs Valverde to be swinging for the fences every day during his final Vuelta a España later this month.

Racing this week at the Vuelta a Burgos, the 42-year-old said he’s ready to take on his final grand tour when the Vuelta starts August 19 in the Netherlands.

“Little by little I am getting better, and I am feeling good. This is good preparation for the Vuelta,” Valverde said Friday. “I’ve had a bit of time off the bike for one reason or another, and now I am regaining my race rhythm. I hope to do as well as I can.”

Valverde is used to racing with pressure. He struggled with it early in his career, but once he managed to embrace the responsibilities that came with leadership, he flourished at the Movistar team since joining in 2005.

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Valverde enjoyed the best — and worst — during his span at Movistar, ranging from the 2009 Vuelta crown and the 2019 world title, to a two-year racing ban for links to the Operación Puerto scandal in 2010.

Valverde’s always come through, and now his longtime employer is going to need Valverde to stay upright, healthy, and competitive for a few more weeks.

The future of the team’s WorldTour license depends on it.

Movistar right on edge of relegation

Enric Mas eventually abandoned the Tour de France, costing the team valuable points. (Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

Movistar is struggling to earn points across the decisive 2022 season, and going into this week, the stalwart Spanish team ranked right on the edge of losing its place in the WorldTour.

Based on the running points tally, Movistar won’t be able to breath easy until Valverde starts winning again.

Coming out of the Tour, Movistar is ranked in the 18th spot. Under the new rules, the top-18 ranked teams will earn licenses going forward.

Several teams are also on the bubble, including Lotto-Soudal and Israel-Premier Tech. Strong performances at the Tour de France by BikeExchange-Jayco and EF Education-EasyPay gives those teams some breathing room, but there are six teams within 1,000 points, so it’s going to be a battle all the way to the final major UCI race at the end of the season.

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Speaking earlier this season, team boss Eusebio Unzué said he was not “obsessed” about the team rankings, but that urgency will certainly change in the closing weeks of 2022.

One of Unzué’s complaints is how points in relatively minor stage race races or results in one-day races can earn just as much or even more than a stage win or a top GC placing in a grand tour.

For teams like Movistar that live and die in the grand tours, Unzué said the points system is working against them.

“It seems to me the points system needs to be revised,” Unzué said. “There has to be proportion between the effort, the difficulty, and the points. It’s not logical that you can win a stage at the Tour de France and earn the same number of points in a five-day stage race who knows where.”

A case in point came during the 2022 Tour, when team captain Enric Mas struggled to perform and eventually pulled out in the closing stages. That meant Movistar lost about 150 points for a top-10.

In contrast, relegation-promotion rival BikeExchange-Jayco, which won two stages and hit more top-5s at the Tour, bounced ahead of Movistar in the team rankings thanks to a strong Tour, but also in part to Simon Yates and his victory the one-day Clásica de Ordizia in northern Spain last week that was worth more than 200 points.

Former UCI president Pat McQuaid also criticized the new emphasis on points rankings to determine the next round of WorldTour licenses.

“There is a strict system in place which is run by the license commission, with three Swiss judges who do an analysis at each year. So why change it when it’s working well? Without offering anything better?” McQuaid told VeloNews.

“It’s not going to improve the sport,” he said. “What it will do is that sponsors will look at it and say we don’t have any guarantees. Sponsors who have the big money and who want to back cycling, they might leave the sport, because if they start seeing that if a team has a bad year, then we would could lose our position. There’s a danger they won’t back a team. A sponsor wants to be in the first division, not the second division.”

Since the WorldTour’s inception in 2005, formerly called ProTour, there was not a strict, in-or-out points system that meant a team could gain or lose its place among the top rank based strictly on results.

The new rules under the so-called relegation/promotion system mean the rolling points from the 2020 to 2022 season among ProTeam second-tier teams as well as WorldTour teams will be one of the determining factors for deciding what is expected to be 18 WorldTour licenses for 2023-25.

The top-18 teams will be eligible for licenses. Right now, there are two ProTeam-level teams assured of a license, with Alpecin-Deceuninck and Arkéa-Samsic looking assured of moving up.

Movistar started the 2022 season ranked middle lower half, but it’s been trending down all season long.

A string of injuries, COVID-19 stops, bad luck, underperforming stars, and superior rivals has seen the perennial Spanish team pedaling in the mud to try to stay at the front of the races.

“We’ve had bad luck and some crashes,” Unzué said. “We usually get the majority of our points during the grand tours, so we have to wait to see how the rest of the season plays out.”

It’s just this kind of situation that some say the current ranking system doesn’t work.

Unzué and his team has been part of cycling’s elite dating back to the glory days of Spanish cycling with Pedro Delgado and Miguel Indurain, first with Reynolds and later with Banesto.

Unzué stitched together for a few leans years with Caisse d’Epargne and Illes Balears, but the arrival of Spanish telecommunications giant in 2011 gave Unzué new wings.

With the company’s backing, the team hit three Tour de France podiums with Nairo Quintana, won the 2019 Giro d’Italia with Richard Carapaz, and won the Tour de France Femmes last week with its women’s squad.

The sponsorship deal is already extended through 2025, but it’s uncertain if there is a stipulation that the team needs to be in the WorldTour.

Can Valverde deliver one more time for Unzué?

Valverde and Unzué have been together since 2005. (Photo: Getty Images)

And that brings everything back to Valverde.

For more than 15 years, he’s been the anchor of the team. He’s earned some of the team’s biggest victories, won the Vuelta in 2009, hit the Tour podium in 2015 and the Giro in 2016. Valverde is the last of Spain’s “golden generation” that also included Alberto Contador, Carlos Sastre, Joaquim Rodríguez, Samuel Sánchez, Óscar Freire, Óscar Pereiro, and others.

In fact, without Valverde’s points going back over the previous three seasons, the team would be in even worse straits.

Can Valverde deliver one more time for Unzué?

It won’t be easy. Valverde was a victim of a hit-and-run incident in July and was struggling with some unnamed health issues recently as well.

“There are others who are faster than me,” said Valverde on Friday, even though he hit out for third in stage 3. “It’s been good here at the Vuelta a Burgos. I won it twice and I have good memories of the race. Let’s hope we can have a good Vuelta.”

American Tour rookie Matteo Jorgenson and Carlos Verona did their share this season, with Jorgensen and Verona hitting a string of top-5s at the Tour, and Verona winning a stage at the Giro to score critical points.

Mas and Verona are both expected to join Valverde at the Vuelta. The team will likely throw all of its firepower in the Spanish tour in a final-hour desperate bid to retain its place among the top teams.

Even if Movistar is relegated to the second tier, the two top-ranked teams in the ProTeam league will be assured spots in all the major grand tours and one-day monuments. But no one wants to settle for that inside the proud Movistar bus.

Movistar has a relative lead to Lotto-Soudal and Israel Premier Tech for the 18th and final spot, but no one wants to leave anything to chance. A strong Vuelta a España and closing fall campaign are critical to the team’s future.

At 42, Valverde admits he’s not as fast and furious as he used to be, but consistency during the Vuelta and scoring a lot of UCI points could go a long way to assuring that Spain’s lone WorldTour team remains in the top league.

If he pulls it off, that could be Valverde’s most enduring legacy.

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