MADRID (VN) — Movistar boss Eusebio Unzué is throwing tradition to the wind and bringing three leaders to the 2018 Tour de France.
The million-dollar question is who will be the boss? Some expect — and perhaps secretly hope — Movistar’s unconventional, three-pronged Tour attack will drive off the rails.
For Unzué, what looks complicated is quite simple.
The veteran Spaniard knows the brutal, opening nine stages will shape the outcome of the 105th Tour. The team won’t talk tactics until the race hits the first rest day at the foot of the French Alps.
“These first nine days of the Tour will be even more dangerous than our direct rivals,” Unzué said Monday. “Luck is going to become a determining factor of this Tour.”
Unzué will be crossing his fingers that he will have a problem on his hands when the Tour rides out of the pavé sectors in stage nine on July 15 and makes a long transfer from northern France to Annecy at the foot of the Alps on July.
“We’d love to have this ‘problem’ of who will win the Tour,” Unzué said. “It’s not until the first rest day that we can look to see who really has options to fight to win this Tour.”
Unzué put his three aces on show Monday in front of his Movistar bosses at the Spanish communications giant’s sprawling headquarters in the Madrid suburbs. Nairo Quintana and Mikel Landa flew in from Switzerland, where Quintana won a stage and finished third overall, while Alejandro Valverde came down from Pyrénées, where he won a stage and the overall at the La Route d’Occitanie.
Quiet confidence is oozing out of the Movistar organization as the season’s top goal looms. There’s a sense that Chris Froome might finally be vulnerable, matched by a Quintana that insiders say is stronger than ever on the climbs.
“We’ve succeeded in our first challenge of arriving to the start of the Tour in the best possible shape. We have three legitimate candidates for the Tour,” Unzué said. “Now we have to survive that first part of the race.”
For Movistar, as for all the other GC favorites, the conversation of who could win the 2018 Tour will only begin when the peloton crosses the line in Roubaix.
A harrowing first week, with a team time trial, crosswinds, high-speed sprints, crashes, and a punchy finale at Mur de Bretagne before ending with the dangerous cobblestones in stage 9 means that every team will take stock on the Tour’s first rest day.
Movistar knows just how costly the Tour’s first week can be. In 2015, Quintana lost 1:28 to archrival Chris Froome (Sky) after getting caught out in crosswinds in the second stage, a difference that haunted him for the remainder of the Tour when he eventually finished second to Froome by 1:12.
“It’s a complicated start to the Tour,” Quintana said. “The first nine days are very important to work as a team. We want to avoid troubles and go day to day. It’s not until the Alps that we arrive to terrain that’s more favorable to us.”
A team can lose its leader in the bat of an eye. Last year, Valverde crashed out in a wipe out in the opening time trial in Dusseldorf that nearly cost the Spanish veteran his career. Valverde, who looks to be back in great form, thinks Movistar’s unconventional approach to the Tour just might work.
“Why not try something different?” Valverde said. “We’ve seen how Sky can control one team and one captain, so why not try with three? I think we have the team to attack Sky in this Tour.”
Unzué said the other five riders to join his “tres mosqueteros” will be decided following the respective national championships this weekend. Movistar will want to bring along a few brawny riders who can help protect its leaders as well as provide some motors for the decisive team time trial in stage 3.
“We are not too worried about that stage,” Valverde said of the team race against the clock. “We can defend ourselves well in that discipline. We might lose a bit of time to the likes of Sky or BMC, but we also might be able to take some time on others. It’s the other stages that are more complicated.”
If Movistar arrives to Annecy with all three of its GC options intact, it will be in an enviable position.
With three legitimate cards to play, Movistar would have the most versatile and dangerous dynamics in the race. Teams rarely bring two co-captains to a Tour simply because it takes an entire squad to protect a captain over the course of three weeks. And having one central leader removes the chance for a team to fracture along different camps.
Movistar believes its strength in numbers will only be positive and could help it finally crack the “Froome Code” at the Tour. Past efforts of saving everything for the final climb have fallen short in delivering Quintana as the first Latin American winner of the Tour. Unzué believes if the team can put pressure on Froome early and often, he is hoping that Froome might eventually break.
“This is a luxury to bring such quality riders to the Tour,” Unzué said. “We’ve seen that anything can happen. It’s always good to have a ‘Plan B’ or a ‘Plan C’ for any scenario. Let’s see if good luck doesn’t abandon us in the first nine days of the Tour.”
What could possibly go wrong? A lot. The expectation would be that Movistar would start attacking each other. Valverde has proven loyal in the past. New arrival Landa is who some expect to see fireworks from if he’s riding strong at the front in the mountains alongside Quintana.
When asked if he thought the most dangerous enemy was inside his own team, Landa laughed and replied, “I hope not.”
“We won’t talk tactics until we reach the Alps,” said Landa, who was mobbed by a gaggle of Spanish media. “That’s when we can start to make a plan. Until then, we have to ride with our fingers crossed.”
Unzué is hedging his bets and is gambling to have at least one viable option after the first half of the Tour. If he has all three, things could get very interesting, very fast.