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Movistar ready to reboot with new-look youthful team

With the exit of three of its marquee riders and signing of a host of rookies, the Spanish team faces a transitional season in 2020.

Of all the teams coming into 2020 after what was a very busy transfer season, perhaps no team has had such a dramatic makeover as Movistar.

The Spanish WorldTour franchise saw an exodus of its marquee riders, including exits of Nairo Quintana, Mikel Landa and Richard Carapaz. In total, 12 riders were out the door by the end of 2019.

Rather than hit the rider market with an open checkbook, team boss Eusebio Unzué is making a long-term bet on the future. Movistar picked up budding Spanish star Enric Mas to be its new leader, yet only three of its 14 new recruits from 2020 boast WorldTour experience.

“It’s a re-set for us this season,” Movistar sport director José Luis Arrieta said. “There are a lot of changes for us this year, especially with the departure of some of the riders we’ve counted on for so long.”

That’s a bit of an understatement. No team in the WorldTour sees as much turnover among its top ranks as Movistar.

The team loses defending Giro d’Italia champion Carapaz, perennial podium challenger Landa as well as franchise rider Quintana. Movistar rode the coattails of the Colombian climber to victories in the Giro and Vuelta a España, as well as three podiums in the Tour de France. After hints of being unhappy at Movistar, Quintana left for Arkéa-Samsic along with Winner Anaconda.

Valverde, Landa, Quintana
With Landa and Quintana both out the door, Movistar lose two of its three grand tour stars to just leave Alejandro Valverde. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

The collective moves leave Movistar a nearly new-look team for 2020.

“This year we have a team with a lot of changes, with a lot of new people, young riders,” Arrieta said.

The Movistar remake began with a bidding war over the services of 2019 Giro winner Carapaz and led to a split with longtime agent and talent scout Giuseppe Acquadro and Unzué. The Italian agent represents much of the top echelon of the Colombian peloton, many of whom have funneled through Unzué’s ranks over the years.

Unzué’s other unsuccessful efforts to sign top Spanish climber Oscar Rodríguez, another Acquadro-represented rider who ended up going to Astana, led to a complete breakdown between the two former allies. Each has vowed never to work with each other again.

And the future of Costa Rican rider Andrey Amador — another Acquadro rider — remains unresolved. He’s been linked in a deal with Ineos, but neither Movistar or the UK team have him listed on their respective rosters as a UCI panel has yet to make a decision on the contract dispute.

In the wake of these high-profile exits, and with many of the peloton’s other top GC already tied up, Movistar had little choice but to rebuild from the bottom.

Among its 14 new recruits, only three — Mas, Dario Cataldo and Davide Villella — have raced at the WorldTour level. The rest of the new class are a mix neo-pros with stubby beards barely out of their 20s. American Matteo Jorgensen joins, and he’s only 20.

25-year-old Mas is one of the few new riders to join Movistar with WorldTour experience. Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images

While the team still counts on its backbone of experienced riders, including Imanol Erviti, José Joaquín Rojas and former world champion Alejandro Valverde, nearly half the team is 25 or under.

“It’s a bit of a ‘reset,’ but it’s not starting from zero,” Arrieta said. “We have Alejandro, who everyone knows is a guarantee for every race he starts. We also know that no one is forever, so we are developing a younger group of riders to be our next big leaders.”

Some of these fresh-faced newcomers got their first taste of the WorldTour at the recent Santos Tour Down Under. Among the seven-rider squad were veterans Jürgen Roelandts and Luis Mas, but others included Juri Hollman, a 20-year-old German, Gabriel Cullaigh, 23 and a product of Team Wiggins, and Basque rider Sergio Samatier, 24.

The Movistar reboot means that it will have to make some hard decisions when it comes to racing priorities. Losing Carapaz means that the Giro won’t have the same importance for the Spanish team, where the Vuelta a España and the Tour de France will take higher importance.

Mas and Marc Soler — a Movistar rider since 2015 and who delivered the team’s first win at the Mallorca Challenge — will be stepping up to fill the void left by Carapaz, Quintana and Landa.

“We have Marc and Enric, and they each will have more responsibility this season,” Arrieta said. “We cannot expect them to start winning right out of the gate, but they will be competitive and learn for the coming years.”

Mas and Soler will split the European spring stage-race calendar between them, with both expected to race the Tour. Soler is also on for the Vuelta, with Mas likely to go as well.

Both have some big wins under their respective belts. Mas was second in the 2018 Vuelta, and finished 22nd in his Tour debut in 2019 while working for Julian Alaphilippe. Soler won the 2018 Paris-Nice, and both are itching for their chances to ride as a top protected GC captain.

Yet the team is the first to admit it cannot expect Mas or Soler to fill the void left by its exiting three aces in Quintana, Landa or Carapaz overnight.

“Maybe the objectives of the team will have to be a little bit less ambitious this year, above or in the volume of racing,” Arrieta said. “In the grand tours we are going to bring a competitive selection. But in other races it’s obvious it won’t be same as if Nairo or Mikel were still with us.

“We know that some of these races that we might have targeted will now be races to learn for the younger riders on our team, and open the door for riders who have been working for the leaders to have their chances to win.”

Arrieta insisted that the team will be competitive across the WorldTour calendar in what the team deems as its most important targets. So expect to see Movistar’s colors at the front in races like the Ardennes classics, the Tour and Vuelta.

“We have the group that it is designated for the important races,” Arrieta said. “Our team is Spanish, so one of the obvious goals for us will be the Vuelta. The Tour is always the Tour, so at the Giro, it’s obvious we’re not going to be able to race it as well as we did last year.”

Valverde
Former world champion Valverde continues to find success in all manner of races, but at 39-years-old, time isn’t on his side. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

And then there’s Valverde. Despite his controversial past, the veteran Spanish rider continues performing at a high level and defining critics. Last year in his world champion season, Valverde added five victories to his career haul of 127 wins, a run that included second overall at the Vuelta.

Valverde will be 40 in April, and he has put the spring classics and the Olympic Games at the center of his season.

“Where isn’t he?” Arrieta said when asked where Valverde expects to be racing for the win.

“This is the last chance for Alejandro at the Olympics,” he said. “Tokyo is a hard course, one that favors him, so it’s all-in for the spring classics in the Ardennes. Then he’ll race the Tour without pressure, and then race the Olympics.”

Arrieta said it’s likely Valverde will not finish the entire Tour, but choose a moment to leave early and travel early to Tokyo to prepare for the Olympic road race, just six days after the Tour ends in Paris.

Movistar is a team in transition. It’s hoping to get one big season out of Valverde, while grooming Mas and Soler to be Spain’s next big GC winners. In the meantime, Spain’s lone WorldTour team will be trying to build on a future without the riders that it counted for some of its top successes.

“That’s how we have to take on this season,” Arrieta said. “Everyone will learn a lot, and we’ll keep growing for the future.”