The Spanish squad may have defended its persistent chase of grand tour team competitions in the Netflix documentary El Día Menos Pensado (The Least Expected Day), and it has won the classification an impressive number of times, but it will want much more this year with its team of big hitters.
Over its 40 years, Movistar and its various other iterations have won the Tour de France seven times and reached the podium 13 times.
Despite chucking everything, including the kitchen sink, at it in recent years the team has endured a lengthy drought – except for its domination in the team classification.
It has been 15 years since the team last made it to the top step – when it took the overall honors with Óscar Peireiro under the guise of Caisse d’Epargne-Illes Balears – and its last podium visit was back in 2016 with Nairo Quintana.
Can Eusebio Unzué’s team finally break its podium and victory drought in 2021?
It’s going to be hard.
Stacking the deck
Unzué knows that it will be difficult to break the stranglehold of the top teams, but he’s not writing off his chances just yet.
“Why not fight for the podium or even reach the top? The Slovenians (Tadej Pogačar and Primož Roglič) will be there, but let’s not rule out surprises either. In the last years some more anonymous rider who is going well always appears,” Unzué said at the unveiling of the team’s updated kit, which will include the logo of the Telefónica Tech brand, this week.
“The team comes to the Tour this year in very good condition, but there is no specific recipe to beat riders like Pogačar or Roglič. We don’t look at others, we think of ourselves, and we are very calm.”
While Jumbo-Visma and UAE-Team Emirates have opted for the strategy of pooling its resources behind a single leader, Movistar has opted for the Ineos Grenadiers approach of stacking its starting eight with multiple GC contenders.
Not burned by the troubles of previous years, which has at times seen their multi-pronged approach work against them, the team is bringing Miguel Ángel López, Enric Mas, Alejandro Valverde, and Marc Soler to the Tour de France.
While the team can’t boast quite the might of Ineos’ line-up – Movistar has just one former grand tour winner in Valverde – there is still some serious strength in its roster. Valverde, along with Soler, is starting in more of a support role but is always a solid “plan B” for the team.
Mas and López, who finished fifth and sixth respectively at last year’s Tour de France, will share the role of primary leaders.
“The trend of teams in recent years is to bring leaderships shared in the Tour, both Miguel Ángel and Enric will be our leaders,” Unzué said. “I hope that both of them can stay safe in the first days and reach the Alps to reach the first conclusions about ourselves and the others.”
López v Mas
Neither Mas nor López can be placed in the same tier as the likes of Roglič and Pogačar right now, but they have the talent to make things difficult for the big favorites.
Just a year older, López has a better record than Mas with podium places at the 2018 Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España. He also has much more self-confidence in his abilities than Mas, which could see him push through as the team’s ultimate leader over the three weeks.
The Colombian is a new addition to the team, brought in to bolster the team’s GC artillery following the departure of Nairo Quintana, and ahead of the impending retirement of Alejandro Valverde. It was an interesting move, not least because of his harsh criticisms of the Movistar tactics and its talismanic rider Valverde at the 2019 Vuelta a España.
It seems that fences have been mended between the two parties and López has quickly got to work winning for the team.
He looked imperious during his most recent victory at the Mont Ventoux Dénivelé Challenge earlier this month where he won by a monster margin of 2:26 ahead of former teammate Óscar Rodríguez. Sixth place at the Critérium du Dauphiné was also a good sign for the Colombian.
López only started the 2021 season at the Tour de Romandie in April, after undergoing surgery following a crash at last year’s Giro d’Italia and then catching COVID-19, but he has packed in the racing days since and Unzué is confident that his new GC man has made up for lost time.
“López raises the average level of the team, he is recovered from last year’s injury. He has had limited months to train, but he arrives in very good condition,” said Unzué.
“Hopefully, he will serve to help Enric and vice versa, to share responsibilities between the two and to be able to face the strength of some leaders. We arrived with the experienced team, this will help us to be at kilometer zero with the intention of doing important things, fighting for the podium or the highest in Paris.”
Movistar’s biggest challenge at the Tour de France is unlikely to be the strength of its individual riders but the collective power of the unit. When the team brought Valverde, Quintana, and Mikel Landa to the 2019 Tour de France, egos got in the way of a good result.
Bringing multiple leaders does not have to be a disaster waiting to happen, it can be a big benefit when it is managed properly. Unzué and the sport directors will have to work to maintain a lid on their leaders’ egos while not stifling their ambition, though the battle for overall supremacy within the team appears much less fraught
With everyone focusing on the powerhouses of Jumbo-Visma, UAE-Team Emirates, and Ineos Grenadiers, there is every opportunity that a team such as Movistar can cause an upset if they can channel their forces. If the squad does it right, they could still win the team classification.