MADRID (VN) — Movistar’s three-card bet on the Tour de France could deliver the biggest pay out in franchise history. Or it could collapse under the weight of ego and ambition.
So far, Movistar’s big stars are committed to ride for the interests of the team regardless of who might be in the pole position. That could and almost certainly will change in the heat of the battle.
With the Tour still three weeks away, however, Nairo Quintana and Mikel Landa promised to play nice next month. Both come to the Tour with guaranteed leadership duties, with Alejandro Valverde playing the joker as the team’s unorthodox third card.
“The enemy? It’s not in-house,” Landa said during a media day. “Inside the team, everyone races for what’s best for Movistar.”
“Nairo and me, we are teammates. That might be another story if we were on different teams, but we are working well together,” Landa continued. “We can use that as a weapon.”
The Landa-Quintana partnership will be one of the hot talking points of this Tour. The world will be watching every word and every gesture to see if their truce will hold up under the pressure of the race and the temptation of the yellow jersey.
Quintana is desperate to become Latin America’s first Tour winner while Landa is growing weary of playing a supporting role after stints at Astana and Team Sky.
Perhaps looking to deflate some of the pre-Tour pressure, Movistar put Quintana and Landa together in a few choice races ahead of July. That was meant to give each of them a chance to know each other better and race alongside one another in a less stressful setting.
“We raced together at the Basque Country tour and the Tour de Suisse, and there were not any problems,” Quintana said as journalists elbowed in to listen. “It’s not hard to work as a team. There were times when we decided to work for him and vice versa, like a team should be. We get along well and we will continue like this.”
There’s proof in the pudding. Landa helped Quintana win stage 7 to Arosa at the Tour de Suisse, and Quintana was quick to thank Landa for his help. Whether that sense of altruism and team loyalty holds up until the end of July remains to be seen.
So far, the pair seems committed to sticking to the script. Yet when he asked whom he wanted to win, Landa replied, “me.” How do you manage that? “Be fastest on the climbs.”
Landa explained it’s easier to get along with Valverde, and admitted that the ambitions between himself and Quintana might not align so easily in the third week of the Tour if they’re both in the running for yellow.
“Alejandro seems to enjoy himself a lot more on the bike than the rest of us. He’s more relaxed and it’s easier to get along with him,” Landa said. “Between Nairo and me, perhaps things seem a little more complicated.”
Movistar boss Eusebio Unzué downplayed any talk of inter-squad treachery. The veteran Spanish manager said the real Tour won’t start until the peloton arrives to the foot of the Alps on the Tour’s first rest day.
“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 has decided to throw all of his artillery at the Tour. There’s a hopeful sense that four-time winner Chris Froome (Sky) will be vulnerable — or might not even race — and that the collective will of a united Movistar can finally crack “Fortress Froome.”
Promising Spanish all-rounder Marc Soler is all but certain to join Movistar’s Tour Eight. Unzué said the final Tour selection will be made after the upcoming national championships, adding that the team will also see some brawnier riders to help in the first week as well as the team time trial. He confirmed that riders such as Andrey Amador, Nelson Oliveira, Daniele Bennati, Imanol Erviti, and Colombian climber Winner Anacona are on the short list.
Quintana likes what he sees, so long as everyone stays to script. The team promises to ride as a group until Annecy, and then the fireworks could begin.
“This is the strongest team we’ve had,” Quintana said. “We have to keep working as a unit. Once we arrive to ground that is more favorable to us, then we can begin to see who is strongest.”
Watching from the sidelines is a bemused Valverde. At 38, he will be the Tour’s wildcard. Already with 11 wins this season, the eternal Valverde is in an enviable position as he knows all the pressure will be on the shoulders of his younger teammates.
“I’ve tried to win the Tour several times, but it never worked out,” Valverde said with a shrug. “But I am not ruling anything out.”
“I am taking on this Tour relaxed. We’ll arrive with a very strong team, and Nairo and Landa are both going very well,” he continued. “We’ll have a very good understanding between us. Let’s see how we come out after those first nine days.”
It will be interesting to watch if Movistar’s poker bet pays off — or if it disintegrates into a three-card monte, and everyone walks away with nothing.