LEON, Spain (VN) — Movistar is hitting on all cylinders during a spectacular start to the 2014 season that is raising hopes inside the Spanish team that it can deliver a grand tour victory this year.
First, it was Nairo Quintana, the Colombian wonder boy who barnstormed last year’s Tour de France, winning the Tour de San Luís in Argentina in January.
Over the weekend, Alejandro Valverde kept the ball rolling, winning three stages and the overall for a record third time at the Ruta del Sol in southern Spain.
“It’s true that the ‘grandes’ are winning already,” Valverde said Sunday, referring to some of cycling’s big stars. “It’s not like it was before, and now everyone wants to find good sensations early. One tries to arrive in form for the goals, without overlooking over important races, because you cannot bet everything on the Giro or the Tour.”
But swinging for the fences in both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France is just what Movistar is doing.
The team is backing Valverde in an all-out push for the Tour podium, while Quintana gets the green light to fight for the maglia rosa at the Giro.
Movistar has slowly caught up to changes in the peloton, and the team believes it can take on Sky and Astana on equal footing both in this year’s first two grand tours.
“The objective now is to win one of the grand tours,” Movistar manager Eusebio Unzué said at the team presentation last month. “Last year, we were second at the Tour with Quintana, third at the Vuelta with Valverde, who was second the year before, so we are the first ones who are pressing to take the next step, which we all know is the most difficult. Both Nairo and Alejandro have the physical and mental capacity to do it, and we’ll have a strong team supporting them.”
The Movistar franchise, which dates back to the 1980s and the Reynolds team, has a long history of winning grand tours.
The team, in its various incarnations — which also included Banesto, Caisse d’Epargne, and Illes Balears — was once a major player in grand tours, winning the Tour de France six times, the Vuelta a España three times, and the Giro d’Italia twice , but it’s been slim pickings since 1998, with Abraham Olano winning the Vuelta.
Not counting Óscar Pereiro’s 2006 Tour win (after the disqualification of Floyd Landis), the organization’s lone grand tour victory in the past decade was Valverde’s 2009 Vuelta win, riding under the Caisse d’Epargne flag.
Unzué said it’s time for the team to repeat history.
Schedules confirmed: Road map to the Giro, Tour
The past few weeks have seen the first steps toward these ambitious goals, and things seem to be on track for Movistar.
Quintana returns to action this week and opens his European season this weekend at the Vuelta a Murcia and the Clásica de Almería, a pair of one-day races along Spain’s sunny Mediterranean coast.
Movistar officials confirmed to VeloNews on Monday that Quintana would see plenty of racing between now and the May 9 start of the Giro in Belfast. He will race at Roma Maxima March 9 before tackling Tirreno-Adriatico (March 12-18) for the first time. Then he is slated to race the Volta a Catalunya (March 24-30) and the Vuelta a Asturias (May 2-4) before the Giro. As of now, there are no spring classics on his calendar.
The Colombian was the sensation of last year’s Tour, winning the best young rider’s and climber’s jerseys, and a mountain stage, and riding to second overall.
To the surprise of many, and the frustration of Quintana, Movistar brass said last month that it would be better for him to try to win the Giro rather than face the pressure of having to equal his performance of last year.
Quintana admitted he’d rather race the Tour again, but has taken on the challenge of trying to win the Giro. Against a mountainous course and a deep field, he will have his hands full in the Italian tour.
“I hope to make another podium, and if it’s possible, to win the Giro,” Quintana said at the Movistar team presentation last month. “I believe it will go well because I will have a strong team supporting me all the time. … I am still young, so it’s better to go step by step.”
Valverde, meanwhile, sees an equally busy racing schedule, including a rare appearance on the cobblestones with two scheduled starts, at A Través de Flandes and E3 Harelbeke, to get a taste of the bumpy stuff that will be featured in the Tour this year.
Like Quintana, he will race at Murcia and Almería this weekend, as well as Strade Bianche (March 8), Roma Maxima, and Milano-San Remo (March 23).
After his trip north, which will also include an inspection of the cobblestone sectors featured in stage 5 at this year’s Tour, he is scheduled to race GP Indurain, the Vuelta al País Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country), and the one-day Amorebieta race before heading to the Ardennes for Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, all in April. He remains undecided between the Critérium du Dauphiné or the Tour de Suisse in June; one of the races will serve as his final tune-up before the Tour.
For Valverde, avoiding mishaps in the first half of the Tour will be just as important as arriving to the grand depart in England with the legs to win.
“I’d like to get through a Tour without setbacks,” Valverde told VeloNews in December. “I believe that I have the legs to do a good Tour. And for me, that’s the podium.”
Valverde passes litmus test
The five-day Ruta del Sol is hardly an accurate measure of what’s going to happen in May or July, but it does provide a litmus test of where the GC men stand.
Valverde beat Richie Porte (Sky) by 31 seconds. Granted, the Tasmanian is looking at more important goals down the road, namely defending his Paris-Nice title and riding for pink at the Giro, but Valverde looked solid across the five days. He was impressive in the 7.3-kilometer opening prologue, taking surprising gains against Porte and Sky teammate Bradley Wiggins against the clock.
He later won back-to-back stages to win the Andalusia stage race for the third time in a row. Valverde’s wins pushed Movistar to seven victories so far in the opening weeks of the 2014 season, its best start in team history.
“It’s an honor to have beaten the victory record here. I was looking at the palmares the other day, and in 2003, I was third. Ten years have passed, and we’re still here with motivation and aspirations,” Valverde said. “This gives you confidence and tranquility, seeing that the hard work over the winter is paying off. I ended the season last year very good, and I am picking up right where I left off.”
The next several months should see more trademark aggressive racing from Movistar, which won the UCI WorldTour team prize in 2013.
With Quintana taking on the Giro, and Valverde aiming for the Tour, the team hasn’t had this big a chance to win a grand tour since the glory days of Miguel Indurain back in the 1990s.