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The front seat of the Movistar team bus will never be the same again.
Alejandro Valverde’s incoming retirement will leave the Spanish squad searching for a new centerpiece as it braces for the next chapter without the 41-year-old icon.
“Who’s going to fill his boots? That’s a tough question. I don’t really think anyone can fit into Alejandro Valverde’s boots,” team sport director Max Sciandri told VeloNews.
Valverde holds a near-venerated status at Movistar. He calls the shots, wins the races, has the last word.
- Love him or loathe him, Valverde will leave a legacy
- López on Movistar exit: ‘The best thing to do was leave’
With Valverde off the bus, the Telefonica-backed bunch will be relying on home talent Enric Mas to step up.
Richard Carapaz, Mikel Landa, and Nairo Quintana all went through the Movistar captaincy-mill in recent years, and the controversial exit of Miguel Ángel López left a surprise hole last summer.
Mas, 27, will be next to hold the torch.
“López was a parenthesis, a bracket. The team got over it quickly,” Sciandri said at Tirreno-Adriatico this week. “We still have Enric Mas, and Valverde is 41 but still kicking strong. But in future, without Alejandro, we’ll be looking to Mas.”
Mas has the legs, but not yet the status
Mas, long touted as the next star of Spanish cycling, is poised to fill the Valverde-void next year.
The 27-year-old has finished in the top-six in his last four grand tours, making him one of the most quietly consistent in the bunch.
But let’s face it, he’s not got Valverde’s Yoda-esque influence just yet.
“He [Valverde] brings everybody to a different level. He really takes charge of the team of the riders. He‘s relaxed and he plays with them, and then ‘boom,’ suddenly, he changes and he gets into race mode and he’s really focussed,” Sciandri said. “You can see he inspires the rest.”
Valverde occupies a role at Movistar that extends way beyond the hurly-burly of the bunch.
The Netflix series El Día Menos Pensado shows him bossing the prized front seat of the bus, floating somewhere between management and rider. Even in his 21st year as a pro, he keeps winning. So far this season, the Murcian was best of the rest behind Tadej Pogačar at Strade Bianche and won three races elsewhere.
“He’s got experience and that experience is a big add to his overall quality as a racer, but it brings so much to the team too,” Sciandri said. “He has something about him that brings a lot to the whole team. He’s unique … hard to replace.”
Mas mixes things up with Tirreno
Valverde rides his way toward retirement this winter via the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, symbolically opening the door for Mas to take the reins unhindered at the Tour de France.
Two second-places at the Vuelta, including last year, finishing almost five minutes behind Primož Roglič, prove that Mas is one of the small crop of GC racers capable of standing up against the Slovenian stranglehold.
Movistar hopes a fresh approach to the season will help the Mallorcan bridge the five-minute gap needed on riders like Roglič and Pogačar at the Tour this summer. Mas is making his career debut at Tirreno-Adriatico this week, skipping the Spanish spring he’s followed before.
“He’s proved he’s capable of the podium, be that in the Tour or the Vuelta. He’s moving forward and with Tirreno he is trying something different rather than straight into Paris-Nice and doing the whole run-up [to the Tour]. He’s really motivated about that,” Sciandri said.
Mas was aggressive in the all-action final of stage 4 on Thursday, making the early moves before Pogačar harvested yet another early-season victory.
“Mas is one of these small group of guys that can challenge Pogačar, Roglič. We just have to work on not what they’re going to do as a mistake, but what he can do to get better,” Sciandri said. “The approach to the Tour this year is changing a little bit and I think this Tirreno could give him room for improvement.”
Mas will sit in the metaphorical front seat left by Valverde at the Tour this summer and for years to come – Movistar will be pinning its hopes on him filling out Bala’s boots, fast.