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Is there trouble brewing inside Movistar with the arrival of emerging star Mikel Landa?
A rash of recent interviews coming out of Spain might suggest as much.
It all kicked off when Nairo Quintana told El País last week, “Since I am the leader of the team, Landa is welcome.”
The Colombian went on to let it be known he will be captain at the Tour de France, and that Landa’s role will be to help, if he even goes to the Tour at all.
Landa then countered at a UCI function a few days later in China, joking with the “Free Landa” refrain that’s popular on social media.
Things heated up even more when Landa told El Mundo Deportivo, “I would have liked to have had another welcome. From what I read and I can see, I am going to his ‘house,’ and he’s not too happy about it.”
Those tit-for-tat headlines hint there could be some turbulent times ahead in 2018 as the two young, single-minded, and ambitious riders spar for leadership and opportunities.
Of course, much of the brewing polemics south of the Pyrénées could be little more than creative headline writing. But what isn’t lost is that the arrival of Landa puts a new dynamic inside the typically serene Movistar camp.
Quintana has been the unquestioned leader of the team since he emerged in 2013 with his eye-popping second-place finish at the Tour de France. The team’s GC ambitions have orbited around NairoMan’s “sueño amarillo” ever since.
Veteran Alejandro Valverde, who Movistar manager Eusebio Unzué once called “the most humble elite pro I’ve ever seen,” was smart enough to admit the obvious. The Spaniard discretely stepped aside to allow the Colombian full leadership at the Tour and the pressure that comes with it.
Under the Quintana-Valverde tandem, Movistar has emerged as the WorldTour’s most consistent stage race performer over the past several years. Valverde is a major player in the hillier classics and one-week stage races, while Quintana is a podium-man in nearly every stage race he starts.
At first glance, Landa’s arrival should provide continuation of the blueprint that’s proven so effective in delivering season-long dominance for the Movistar “blues.”
With Valverde’s future uncertain following his horrific spill in the open stage of the 2017 Tour — he’s on track to return to racing early next season — Landa’s arrival to Movistar becomes even more important.
There is no question that Landa’s arrival is a major coup for Movistar. The 27-year-old Basque rider has emerged as one of the top yet still untapped talents in the peloton. Most agree he could win the Giro d’Italia, Vuelta a España, and perhaps even the Tour de France.
With a recent slew of retirements of the Spanish Armada, including Alberto Contador, Landa is Spain’s biggest star in a Spanish peloton desperate for a winner. Most of Spain’s biggest riders have gone through the Movistar franchise, from Pedro Delgado and Miguel Indurain to Joaquim Rodríguez and Valverde. So, Landa’s presence on Spain’s last-standing WorldTour team is important at many levels.
The dynamic between Landa and Quintana will be markedly different, however, than how Valverde and Quintana amicably split the responsibilities of leadership.
By the time Quintana arrived in 2013, Valverde had already confirmed his spot in the hierarchy of the peloton. He had also admitted he would never win a race like the Tour. In contrast, Landa still not only has a lot to prove but arrives at Movistar full of ambition to see how far he can go.
On paper, it should be relatively easy for Movistar boss Unzué to keep both of his stars happy and feeling appreciated. By most indications, Landa will likely put winning the Giro at the top of his priorities for 2018, while Quintana will put a renewed focus on the Tour.
Unzué, speaking to VeloNews after the team confirmed Landa’s arrival, said he doesn’t think there will be a problem between Quintana and Landa.
“There are many races across the calendar for them to share,” Unzué said. “And having two or even three strong riders in a race like the Tour is always an advantage. I don’t think there will be a problem.”
The only race where Landa and Quintana might overlap would be the Tour, but the team is still working out everyone’s respective calendars. There could be some official confirmation later this week when Movistar meets in Pamplona for an annual get-together to prepare for the coming season.
Landa has proven a loyal soldier in the four years he raced at Astana and Team Sky. Even last summer, with Landa looking like he could ride the entire Tour peloton off his wheel, including team captain Chris Froome, Landa was loyal to the end. That loyalty cost him a podium spot in Paris.
For 2018, Landa wants to prove he’s a winner and, if he cannot manage to win a grand tour outright, at least reach the final podium.
“I expect Unzué to be able to manage our egos, and get the best out of everyone,” Landa said. “After my season, everyone in the world wanted to sign me. I joined Movistar because it’s a team with tradition.”
Quintana will have his own anxiety to reconfirm his spot in the peloton next season. Only for a rider of Quintana’s caliber would a second place in the Giro and a 12th at the Tour in a daring attempt at the elusive Giro-Tour double be viewed as a disappointment.
“I’m only 27. I am not a grandpa yet,” he told El País. “In theory, my best years are still to come. … Landa will be a rider who can help us blow up the race at the right moment. And if we had two or three like Landa, that wouldn’t be so bad, would it?”
Neither Quintana nor Landa is afraid to speak their mind. Their co-habitation should provide plenty of fireworks both on and off the bike next season.