Movistar is taking the long view of the race for the yellow jersey ahead of the first major mountain battle of the 2019 Tour de France.
This climb-heavy edition of the Tour will be won in the mountains, but Thursday’s first uphill skirmish won’t be where the race is won, but it certainly could be lost.
Movistar’s fleet of climbers is expectant that things will turn the way the more the race climbs upward. With the second half of the Tour packed with climbs in the Pyrénées and the Alps, Movistar hopes to be strongest when it counts late in the race.
“The Tour is very, very long,” said Movistar captain Alejandro Valverde. “I am sure the finale [Thursday] will favor Landa and Nairo. They are looking strong and they’re motivated.”
Thursday’s multi-climb stage ending atop the La Planche des Belles Filles summit will be telling in more ways than one. Hot off winning the Giro d’Italia, the Spanish outfit knows Thursday’s stage is the first important test on the road to Paris.
“There is still a lot of Tour ahead of us,” said Nairo Quintana. “We’ll have to see how our rivals and teams respond.”
Movistar, however, will have the pressure to move even if they don’t want to expend too much energy too soon. The Spanish outfit ceded more time than it would have liked in Sunday’s team time trial, putting Quintana and co-leader Mikel Landa on the back foot.
Going into Thursday’s stage, Quintana and Landa started 37th and 39th, respectively, at 1:30 behind race leader Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step). The pair starts at 50 seconds behind arch rival Egan Bernal (Ineos) and 45 seconds behind defending champion Geraint Thomas (Ineos).
“I’m ready to get these nervous stages behind us,” Landa said. “We’ll see how the stage develops. Of course, it’s good terrain for us take back some time.”
Set against the steep final kilometer up the Vosges summit, the La Plache des Belles Filles is the first chance where everyone expects a major battle and some important shakeup in the GC.
“Belles Filles is the first important test for the GC riders,” said Movistar boss Eusebio Unzué. “The finish is even steeper and harder than what we’ve raced before. It’s the first chance to see where everyone is.”
The responsibility will be on both Landa and Quintana to at least defend their position and not give up time against their direct rivals.
“We have to race smart,” Quintana said. “It’s not only up to me to attack. Sometimes when I have attacked others have taken advantage in the moment.
“It will be a chance to measure our strength and see where we are,” Quintana continued. “The first mountain stage over the past few years hasn’t always gone so good. I am confident that this year will be different.”
Quintana and Landa both know that Thursday is an important test of their chances for overall victory. The race will be decided in the Pyrénées and Alps, but they don’t the Vosges to serve as another setback in their quest for yellow.