Movistar keeps chin up despite rocky 2018

Emerging talents supplementing current triple-header of leaders and favorable Tour route provide Movistar boss confidence for 2019

Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

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PAMPLONA, Spain (VN) — Hope springs eternal in professional cycling. Movistar gathered for its annual pre-season camp in the foothills of the Pyrénées hoping that 2019 turns out better than 2018.

The season ended with an incredible exclamation point with Alejandro Valverde winning the world title, but the team ended the campaign expecting more from key riders Mikel Landa and Nairo Quintana.

Though there were plenty of positive highlights in 2018, including the emergence of Marc Soler and Richard Carapaz, both Landa and Quintana suffered with crashes and poor form that kept them from shining in July.

For 2019, the team isn’t changing its focus, but it is banking on a change of fortunes.

“We will wait to see how the Giro and Vuelta courses look, but I think it’s likely we will have a similar approach to the Tour as we did this year,” said Movistar boss Eusebio Unzué. “Both Mikel and Nairo know it’s a good Tour route for them.”

In short, Movistar could well repeat its “all-in” strategy of bringing all three of its aces to the Tour. What remains to be seen is who will race the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España.

“If I couldn’t pull it off this year, then next year I will,” Landa said. “The lesson learned is that you’ve got to keep calm in complicated moments. I want to go to the Tour and I have to go to the Tour, and I don’t know anything else.”

Landa suffered a string of bad luck last July. A crash early in the Tour handicapped his chances yet he still managed to finish seventh overall mostly hobbled throughout the Alps. And then a crash at the Clásica San Sebastián took him out of the Vuelta a España and his season was largely over.

“We still believe in Mikel,” Unzué said. “He demonstrated his class at the Tour by riding into the top 10. He kept fighting despite injuries and by the time he was feeling like himself again the race was over.”

Unzué took some flack by bringing all of his firepower to the Tour last year even if it didn’t go to plan. At least Landa could still salvage a top 10 and the team won the overall team classification despite having Quintana struggle as well. The Colombian salvaged his Tour by winning a stage in the Pyrénées, but even he was mystified why he fell flat in the Tour.

“We tried some new stuff with training, and it didn’t work out,” Quintana said. “I finished the year without realizing my objectives. Next year let’s hope for better luck.”

Quintana takes confidence after getting a first glance at the 2019 Tour route heavy on climbs and altitude.

“I like the course. There are a lot of mountains and a lot of altitude, so that favors me. I still have that dream and I will keep fighting for it,” he said. “I have won a Vuelta and a Giro, but it’s the Tour that draws me most. I will keep working for that.”

Unzué said the team still has not plotted out its season goals, but it’s possible that Landa might race the Giro and Tour, with Quintana and Valverde racing both the Tour and Vuelta. Landa hinted that he’d like to go to the Vuelta as well, but said he wouldn’t race all three grand tours if the team wants him to race the Giro.

Unzué has a wealth of talent on his hands, with riders like Carapaz, fourth in the 2018 Giro, and Soler, a winner at Paris-Nice, on the move with ambitions for more. His biggest challenge is finding space for everyone. His top stars are committed through 2019, with both Landa and Quintana up for contract renewals at the end of next season.

Quintana said there was no tension between himself and Landa, insisting that they raced well together and even became friends.

And then there’s Valverde. The 38-year-old shows no signs of slowing down and suggested that he could race beyond the 2020 Tokyo Olympics if he is still feeling good and winning races.

“Initially I was thinking that the Olympic Games would be a good place to stop, but maybe not if I am still competitive?” Valverde said. “I am very excited to be racing next season in the world championship jersey and that will give me even more motivation.”

Valverde, who won the prestigious Velo prize as best rider of 2018, confirmed he will race Tour of Flanders for the first time, and quickly downplayed his chances for victory in the Belgian monument, but said there is no way he’d race Paris-Roubaix. For Valverde, his season will look largely the same as well, with early season targets and then playing a wild-card role in the grand tours.

“The rainbow jersey hasn’t taken away my desire to win races,” he said. “In fact, it’s the opposite. With this jersey I want to win even more. To be world champion at 25 would have meant some heavy pressure, but at 38, it motivates you more to keep doing what you like doing.”

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