Vuelta a Espana

Movistar tactic backfires with no payback for hard effort at Vuelta a España

Spanish WorldTour team vows to keep pushing despite seeing all three of its leaders lose time on Moncalvillo.

Movistar did all the heavy lifting Wednesday leading up to the thrilling summit finale at the Vuelta a España, but the team’s GC leaders couldn’t deliver the payback.

The Spanish WorldTour team piled on during the approach to the explosive category one climb up the Alto de Moncalvillo, and even split the lead bunch on the flats across Spain’s rioja wine country. When the accelerations came from stage-winner Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) and race leader Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) in the closing kilometers of the grueling climb, however, Movistar’s three leaders were nowhere to be seen.

“The team was a perfect ’10’ yet again, but I didn’t go as well as I had hoped, and I couldn’t stay with the best,” said Enric Mas, who started and ended the stage fifth overall. “We’ll see what lies ahead in the stages this weekend in Asturias and the time trial in Ézaro. Those days are the days that we have to be there, so let’s see what happens.”

Movistar started and ended the stage with three riders in the top 10, and though the team defended its GC positions Wednesday — including its top spot in the team classification — all three gave up valuable time. Mas lost 54 seconds, and Marc Soler ceded 2:05 to drop from seventh to ninth. Alejandro Valverde, third in Tuesday’s stage, actually moved up one spot to eighth despite giving away 1:39.

Looking to kick start its GC bid after struggling Sunday at Formigal as well, it was not the finale that Movistar was hoping for.

“We played our cards, and even though it wasn’t what we expected today, we have to keep trying,” said Movistar’s Carlos Verona, who took the last pulls for Movistar before Valverde took over. “The idea today was to make it hard and put pressure on Ineos. There were people stronger than us today.”

Movistar used the entire team, with Imanol Erviti, José Joaquin Rojas, and Neilson Oliveira setting a blistering pace on the flats leading toward the base of the final climb. That neutralized a breakaway, and split the main pack, spitting riders such as Chris Froome (Ineos Grenadiers) out the back. Verona took the final pulls until about 5km to go.

“They did a really good race,” Jumbo-Visma’s Sepp Kuss said of Movistar, “As always, they know the right time to put on the pressure, and they made it a really hard pace on the last climb, on the downhill and the flats after that. They have to try. They put their best foot forward, but there are a lot of motivated teams here, and it’s the last race of the season, and everyone is laying it all out there.”

Kuss was at the sharp end of the stick Wednesday, following a surge from Hugh Carthy (EF Pro Cycling), and eventually marking Mas’s wheel as Roglič and Carapaz sparred for the stage victory. Verona defended the team’s tactics and said they will do it again this weekend.

“If you don’t try, you never know,” Verona said. “There are still many hard stages ahead of us. We are still motivated and strong, and if we keep pushing the pressure, someone will crack, and it might favor us on another day.”

That kind of sledge-hammer tactic can often pay its just rewards. At the Tour de France last month, Bahrain-McLaren was in a similar position, putting its team at the front on the stage to Col de la Loze only to see team captain Mikel Landa fall flat. The very next day, Bahrain-McLaren piled on again, and Landa responded to stay with the best while others cracked, and the former Movistar rider ended up fourth overall in Paris.

Mas, who rode to a career-best fifth at the Tour, vows to keep fighting. The hardest stages of the Vuelta are yet to come, and there were others who were struggling Wednesday as well.

Though much has been made about Movistar’s sometimes dysfunctional team politics in the past, this time it appears that it’s more of a question of legs than conflicting allegiances.

“It’s true I am a little bit further away from the podium, but we’ll keep fighting, the team as well as me,” Mas said. “I can only thank the entire team for their efforts today. We will fight with all we have, and try to enjoy it, and give a good show to the fans in the second half of the Vuelta.”

Though a grand tour can be lost in a day, they are not won in a day. Movistar vows to keep pushing, and its doggedness usually pays off with something big when it counts.