Rivalries typically play out between opponents on different teams. For 2018, there’s a rivalry in the making that could make a Brazilian soap opera seem tame.
Team Movistar is planning the unthinkable for July and will bring all three of its GC aces to the Tour de France. Rather than spread the wealth around the grand tours, the Spanish outfit is going all-in on the Tour.
Instead of Movistar against Sky and BMC, it could be Mikel Landa versus Nairo Quintana versus Alejandro Valverde.
What is Movistar thinking?
“We’ve won the Giro, and the Tour,” says Movistar manager Eusebio Unzué. “We’ve been four times the WorldTour’s top team. Now we want to win the Tour [again].”
With Team Sky holding a stranglehold on the yellow jersey, Unzué knows it will require something extraordinary to wrestle it away from them.
What could possibly go wrong? A lot. Cohabitations in cycling rarely turn out well. Think Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador in 2009. Or Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault in 1986. Of course, backroom drama and inside-the-bus intrigue can deliver some amazing dynamics. Those two Tours rate among the best ever in cycling history.
There have already been a few hints of the melodramatic possibilities. Quintana seems to have had his ego ruffled by the arrival of upstart Landa. Even before team camp last fall, Quintana was staking his claim that Movistar was “his” team. Landa, after faithfully playing lieutenant at Astana and Team Sky, says he won’t follow orders this time.
“My time has come to win a grand tour,” Landa said defiantly. “Before, when I have been told to sit up, I have. This time, I won’t.”
“I think we can be stronger with all three of us at the Tour. It’s a fascinating idea. Why not? It will be fun.”
And Valverde? Well, at 38, he all but admits he won’t be trying to usurp anyone’s throne. Instead, the wily veteran could play spoiler if he survives a harrowing first week, and Landa and Quintana start sniping.
“I think we can be stronger with all three of us at the Tour,” Valverde says. “It’s a fascinating idea. Why not? It will be fun.”
Adding another twist, a new rule for 2018 reduces rosters to eight riders in grand tours. For Movistar, that means there will only be five workers for the three would-be kings (assuming that no one else on the roster starts to feel feisty). And then there is the inevitable toll of crashes and illness.
Maybe Unzué knows something else the rest of us don’t.
“There are two starting days in this Tour,” Unzué says. “The first, in the Vendée, and the second after the cobbles to Roubaix.”
Unzué will have to lean on his decades of experience to keep his three princes happy. In the Tour, only one can be king. Who will it be? Here’s how the Movistar’s in-house rivals stack up.
Tour experience: Quintana
To win the Tour, you need to know the Tour. With 10 starts, Valverde has the smarts. Landa has only raced twice. Quintana, though, with three podiums in four starts, holds the advantage.
Momentum counts for a lot in professional cycling. Stars are often paid not for their proven results but their perceived potential. Valverde is coming off a career-threatening injury, while some whisper that Quintana has already peaked. Landa brings the hype.
Loyalty will be a key element in the Movistar intrigue. Quintana is loyal only to his obsession to become the first South American to win the Tour. Landa is done with being loyal altogether. Valverde, mature and experienced, is the only faithful one among them.
Time trial: Landa
This discipline is the Achilles’ heel of Movistar’s entire game plan. Quintana bleeds time against the clock, with Valverde capable of the odd surprise. Landa will be haunted by losing the podium in last year’s Tour by one second in the final time trial. Has he learned to love the clock?
Valverde is a touch off the very best. Landa likes to think he’s among the top climbers in the world. But it’s Quintana, when he’s at his peak, who holds the advantage when the roads tilt upward.
Landa has never carried the burden of team leadership in a grand tour, and Valverde gladly passed that mantle to Quintana in 2013. Nairo stands the tallest when the going gets tough.
The cobblestones could be the trio’s collective undoing. Quintana and Valverde survived them in 2015, and Landa’s never faced them. It’s a roll of the dice on who survives stage 9.
For the plan to work, Movistar needs a few things to go its way. First, all three must commit to backing the strongest man on the road. That typically plays out naturally, but pride and ego (not to mention prize-money bonuses) can get in the way. Second, all three must survive the harrowing first half with GC options intact. As Unzué suggested, a hard day on the Roubaix cobbles could deflate any would-be infighting before the mountains even arrive. And finally, they have to match Sky, assuming the Froome saga has cleared by July.