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Analysis: Movistar in pole position for Bernal sweepstakes

Egan Bernal, 21, is under contract at Sky through 2023, but the team's sponsor woes could force him to look elsewhere next year.

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Sunday’s confirmation that Spanish telecommunications giant Telefónica will continue its backing of Spain’s only WorldTour team puts Eusebio Unzué’s organization in an enviable position.

Not only will the two-year extension keep Movistar’s men’s and women’s teams funded until the end of 2021, but the financial guarantee also slots the venerable Unzué into the pole position to sign cycling’s latest gem — Colombia’s Egan Bernal.

With Team Sky’s possible demise at the end of 2019, it’s not Chris Froome or Geraint Thomas who will be on every team manager’s wish list. It’s climbing sensation Bernal whose value will only skyrocket if he has an equally impressive 2019 season as his Sky debut was this summer.

Though both Thomas, 32, and Froome, 33, are proven Tour winners and both have at least another few good years left in their legs, it’s the untapped promise of the 21-year-old Bernal that will likely set the rider market on fire in 2019 if Sky principal Dave Brailsford cannot find a new sponsor.

The rider market operates much like the stock market. Prices are based on future potential, not past performances. If Sky does fold, Bernal could set off a bidding war not seen since Peter Sagan was on the market in 2016.

“Bernal will be the hottest property on the market if Sky closes,” one agent said. “Movistar and Bernal are a perfect fit, at least on paper.”

How good are Bernal’s prospects? Look no further than the unprecedented five-year contract extension he signed with Sky that will keep him on the team through 2023, assuming it survives next year’s sponsor search. That contract says everything the peloton needs to know about Bernal. Brailsford, who’s won six of the past Tours with three different riders, clearly sees the Colombian as the prince in waiting to take over when Tour king Froome retires in a few years.

The only problem now for Brailsford is that he has about six months to land a new sponsor or he risks watching the grand tour machine he’s meticulously constructed crumble. The team’s top riders will wait for Brailsford, but most observers say if there’s not a confirmed new backer before the start of the 2019 Tour de France, riders will look to shore up their futures elsewhere.

Brailsford’s sponsor woes would be a windfall for his sometimes-jealous rivals, who will be circling like vultures in the coming months if there’s any delay in announcing a new sponsorship deal to keep Team Sky afloat.

So why would Bernal and Movistar fit? There are a lot of reasons. First off, the team is Spanish, and though Bernal quickly picked up English this season with Sky, speaking in the native tongue is always a benefit to any racer.

Second, Movistar has grand tour-winning pedigree. Unzué, who will celebrate his 40th season in the peloton next year, has roots dating back to the Miguel Indurain glory days. With solid domestique support, managerial know-how, and the team’s long-running tradition, Bernal would slot right into Movistar’s family-like environment.

And the most important reason why Unzué could land Bernal is Movistar’s interest in the Latin American market. One of the top reasons Movistar has backed the WorldTour team since 2011 is to promote its mobile phone services in the burgeoning South American market. It’s been quietly whispered that Colombian superstar Nairo Quintana has single-handedly made the sponsorship viable for the Spanish mobile phone operator. Who better to bring onboard than the rider many believe could lift Colombian cycling even higher?

Unzué will have a high-wire act to try to snag Bernal, however. First off, he’ll have to wait to see if Sky does collapse — and then he’d have to find the money.

Movistar operates on an estimated annual budget of around $17 million, far less than Team Sky’s annual budget of more than $43 million. To make room for Bernal, one of two things would have to happen: Movistar would have to kick in more money or Unzué would have to make room in his budget.

All three of Movistar’s top stars — world champion Alejandro Valverde, Mikel Landa, and Quintana — are on contract years going into 2019 (the year the previous sponsorship ended). All three will be pressing Unzué to secure their futures. A flood of Sky riders pouring onto the market would have a pushdown effect on any GC contender hunting for a contract for 2020.

The big question is whether there would there be enough room on Movistar for the quietly proud Quintana and the rider poised to eclipse him. Quintana has already expressed his frustration with Movistar’s three-pronged approach to the 2018 Tour de France and has hinted that he would consider leaving Movistar at the end of 2019.

Everything will hinge on Brailsford and his efforts to secure Team Sky’s future beyond 2019.

A lot of things would have to stack up for Bernal to land at Movistar, but if the stars align, Unzué is ideally positioned to land cycling’s next big thing.

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