The team’s famous “trifecta” of leadership infamously derailed time and again, so much so that the team’s inner workings were the subject of a fascinating insider’s look documented in the film, “The Least Expected Day.”
Flash forward to the 2020 Vuelta a España, and a new-look Movistar team is racing as a unified front and taking control of the Vuelta. It’s still early days, but Spain’s only WorldTour team slotted its newly minted leader Enric Mas safely into the GC fray and capped a superb tactical play Wednesday with a solo victory for prince-in-waiting Marc Soler.
“I’m very happy,” said Soler, who’s come up through the Movistar system to win his first career grand tour stage. “We were racing on home roads, and we were motivated to race here in Navarra. Together with the sport directors we had a plan before the stage, and we wanted to play our cards from the Urbasa climb.”
Coming at the end of what’s been a rebuilding year for the Spanish outfit, Wednesday’s textbook-perfect tactic was the ideal tonic for a long, sometimes turbulent season.
Movistar throttled the stage that traced over many of the local climbs that the Navarra-based team often train on. When Movistar massed at the front to try to fracture the group on some flats heading toward the final climb, everyone knew Movistar meant business.
The team set the pace on the first-category Alto de Aralar, with everyone taking pulls to trim down the GC group. Mas and Alejandro Valverde were safely tucked in, and Soler set the stage on fire at the front. The fiery Catalan rider, who reacted in anger in last year’s Vuelta when he was told to sit up while attacking in Andorra to wait for Nairo Quintana, got the green light to attack.
Soler came over the top of the Aralar, and opened up a vicious attack on the steep descent. Once on the flats, he had 20 seconds and soloed home for what is just the third win in all of 2020 for the usually-prolific Movistar.
“We wanted to do well here, and we even reconned the stage this weekend before going to Irún,” Soler said. “I struggled a bit on the upper part of the climb because I had worked so hard, but there was a bit of a pause in the group, and I was able to get back on, and I came over the top, and no one could follow my wheel.”
The victory comes as sweet payback for the proud team, which is the longest-running franchise in the WorldTour. The team’s DNA dates back to the Delgado-Indurain glory days, and has remained a force in the peloton ever since.
After a crisis-driven season in 2019, Movistar underwent a major makeover coming into 2020. Gone are star riders Richard Carapaz, Quintana, Mikel Landa, and André Amador, who were all shipped out as part of a 12-rider exodus from the team.
Except for Mas, who was hailed by some in Spain as the next Alberto Contador, most of the new signings in 2020 were younger, less-polished riders, including American rookie Matteo Jorgensen. The team also brought on coach Patxi Vila, who helped Peter Sagan win three world titles. There were no other marquee arrivals in what’s clearly a rebuilding year of the team’s backbench.
Some of the more familiar names remain, including Valverde, Imanol Erviti, and José Joaquín Rojas, but Movistar of 2020 looks and feels like a very different team than during the last few years when Quintana, Landa, Carapaz and Valverde were more often racing against each other than as one unit.
On Wednesday, the team raced like a well-oiled machine, and Soler delivered the team’s much-needed victory to super-charge this Vuelta.
“Everyone on the team deserves this after so much work in such a complicated season,” Soler said. “I can only thank everyone on the team and to those who’ve supported me during all this time. It’s my first grand tour stage victory, and I am very, very happy.”
The stage victory will set Movistar on good footing for the remainder of the Vuelta. Mas, hot off an encouraging fifth overall at the Tour, is fifth at 17 seconds back after what’s been a very explosive opening to the race.
“In the end, we finished it off with Marc, who really deserves this win,” Mas said. “When he came past us, I thought it was a motorbike because he was riding at triple speed from what we were doing. When I saw he took 50 meters in barely three seconds, I knew he couldn’t stop and he would take this. We’re so happy about him.”
Movistar now has three in top 11, and if the team keeps racing like it did Wednesday, no one will be making jokes about their tactics anymore.