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The pressure is on Movistar to deliver the yellow jersey.
As one of the peloton’s strongest and most consistent grand tour teams, the Spanish outfit believes this year represents the best opportunity in years to finally win the Tour de France.
A Tour without the injured Chris Froome means that Movistar is first in line to exploit the opening. Can it deliver? With Nairo Quintana and Mikel Landa as co-leaders, the Spanish team is more optimistic than usual.
“It’s an open Tour. We have the luck to start with two realistic options for victory,” said team boss Eusebio Unzué. “We are ambitious in what’s a difficult Tour, like always, and one that’s more open with the absence of Froome.”
Froome has been Movistar’s arch rival ever since the African-born Ineos star emerged as the Tour’s rider of reference in 2013. Froome’s first of four Tour victories came just as Quintana exploded on the international scene. The Colombian sensation has twice been second behind Froome and once third. So logic would suggest that without Froome, Quintana should be best positioned to step up.
Though Quintana is certainly considered a favorite for the Tour, the Colombian, now 29, has lost a bit of his luster the past few seasons. After finishing third in 2016, Quintana could only muster 12th and 10th, respectively, in the past two editions.
Others are looking to another half-dozen potential winners ahead of Quintana. Some are even whispering that it’s more likely Colombia might see its first yellow jersey winner from Egan Bernal (Ineos), not Quintana.
For his part, Quintana isn’t giving too much away and insists he’s up for the challenge.
“I believe we are arriving in good condition,” Quintana said. “We’ve worked well to get ready. Let’s hope we have some luck.”
Co-leading with Quintana is Mikel Landa, who rode to fourth at the Giro d’Italia. Last year, Landa shook off a crash midway through the Tour to fight to seventh. Landa is hoping to stay upright and have his legs at full strength for the second half of the race.
“If [Geraint] Thomas and [Egan] Bernal struggle early, the hopes of everyone else will grow,” Landa said. “I feel good. I finished off the Giro very good and I’ve recovered well. I expect to struggle the first few days but I’m not too worried about it. I am sure that Movistar will be one of the strongest teams.”
Everyone continues to downplay any chance of turmoil within the ranks.
For his part, world champion Alejandro Valverde continues to insist he won’t be challenging for the overall classification. Last year, the team struggled after starting with three protected GC riders. This year, Valverde said he’s fully embracing the role as super domestique.
“It’s obvious that I am skinnier than ever … maybe I’ll start eating more so people stop giving me grief,” said Valverde of his thin profile. “I tried to get a little thinner to see how it goes, and so far, so good.
“We come with two leaders,” Valverde said. “It’s clear that I am here to help them and I will be racing without pressure. I will not race for the yellow. They’re looking good and I am not going to leave any doubt about this — I am racing with zero personal ambition.”
On paper, Movistar will have one of the strongest teams in the bunch. Marc Soler, Andrey Amador, Imanol Erviti, Nelson Oliveira and Carlos Verona round out a very diverse team with support in the flats and in the mountains.
With that support and with two strong leaders, Movistar starts Saturday as one of the top favorites for yellow.
To have a chance of finally winning the Tour, Movistar must do a few things before hitting the mountains. First off, it must keep Quintana and Landa out of trouble in the flat and highly dangerous transition stages. Quintana has notoriously struggled early in previous editions of the Tour with losses that have handicapped his GC ambitions.
Sunday’s team time trial will be another early hurdle. The stage 13 individual time trial with 27.2km in Pau will be another weak spot. If they can steer into the Alps with either of their GC captains’ ambitions fully intact, the team will have more than realistic chances.
By then, it will be the legs that determine the winner.
“We are ambitious,” Unzué concluded. “We’ve come close the past few years and we come to the start of this edition hoping to be winners once again.”
Hot off winning the Giro d’Italia with Richard Carapaz, Movistar’s confidence is flying high. If Quintana and Landa can stay upright and limit their TT losses, both could be racing for the podium.
The pressure is on. Though it’s no guarantee, Froome could be back next year, and this year’s open race could present a one-off opportunity.