Spain’s lone WorldTour team cleaned out in 2019, moving out Mikel Landa, Richard Carapaz, and Nairo Quintana, in part to create harmony among the group. The division between the rank-and-file inside the Movistar bus was so heated last year that it made for riveting viewing in the Netflix documentary series.
Could the Spanish team be re-creating the same wrought and sometimes-tense environment with the arrival of López, who brings a strong character along with his promising palmarès?
Movistar brass certainly isn’t hoping so.
There’s no arguing that Movistar has room at the top of its GC hierarchy for López. Following the exodus of its three gallos in 2019, the team bet on the homegrown talent Marc Soler and the highly touted Enric Mas.
The 2020 season wasn’t a complete disaster, but it was a step or two below Movistar’s typical haul.
Mas delivered solid fifth places at both the Tour de France and Vuelta a España, but he was a pedal stroke or two behind the best in both races. The sometimes-fiery Soler delivered an emotional stage win at the Vuelta but was never a GC factor in either grand tour. Alejandro Valverde, usually a sure bet in any race, seemed to struggle in the atypical COVID-affected season.
In contrast, López enjoyed a robust 2020 campaign, capped by victory in the “queen’s stage” at Col de la Loze in his Tour debut. López lost a podium spot in the final time trial at Belles-Filles, but sixth overall confirmed his consistency in grand tours. He’s never been worse than eighth in any grand tour he’s completed, with third-place podiums in the 2018 Giro d’Italia and Vuelta.
Tuesday’s announcement of López’s arrival for 2021 won’t come without some challenges.
While other teams, such as Jumbo-Visma and Ineos Grenadiers, have done a good job at balancing the egos and ambitions of multiple GC captains, Movistar has a mixed track record.
That’s what made last year’s Netflix documentary, “The Least Expected Day,” so enthralling is that it offered an honest and riveting look inside an elite professional team, warts and all.
With Quintana, Landa, and Carapaz all bucking for leadership duties, the team was fractured from within. Their departures seemed to have healed the frayed nerves behind the scenes in 2020, and the team rode as a unified front throughout the season. Mas was effusive in thanks for his teammates’ efforts, and Soler played the loyal co-captain throughout the season.
While Movistar’s tactics sometimes baffle armchair observers, it seems the team often races as if it had a leader akin to a Chris Froome or Primož Roglič. In fact, López has been at the receiving end of some of these episodes. In last year’s Vuelta, he blasted Movistar following a crash that took down the likes of Roglič and López while still pressing the action at the front.
Movistar shouldn’t be criticized for trying. Quintana’s best days were behind him the past few years, and Landa has never been able to deliver on his grand tour promise. Carapaz had the character and legs to deserve Movistar’s potent force, but Ineos Grenadiers lured him away.
López should improve at Movistar, which has the grand tour racing acumen and tradition that could suit him better than Astana’s sometimes scatter-shot approach. The Colombian climber might never win a Tour, but a Giro or Vuelta could be within his reach. With the support and firepower that Movistar can pack, López will have the protection and guidance he needs to take the next step.
That won’t come without some complexities.
Mas will want to continue on his trajectory as Spain’s “next big thing,” while Soler sometimes looks like there is a young Miguel Indurain inside of him aching to break out. López’s arrival should not undercut other of their larger ambitions.
Movistar has the depth and experience to bring competitive squads across all three grand tours, so if the 2021 season unfolds without major disruption, each will have their shot to lead. In fact, the 2021 Tour route is far from ideal for López, meaning a tilt at the Giro or Vuelta will make sense.
What the team will want to avoid is another embarrassing repeat of the final mountain stage of the 2019 Tour, when Valverde, Landa, and Quintana were all racing for the win, only to open the door for Vincenzo Nibali to take the honors.
López’s arrival should be a boon for everyone. Movistar has a long tradition of nurturing South American talent, and López’s arrival will put the team back into the GC frame across all three grand tours. And López seems like a captain in search of a ship to call his own.
Now it’s up to Eusebio Unzué and the team’s sport directors to try to find space for everyone. That shouldn’t be as hard as it might seem at first glance.