MADRID (VN) — Movistar’s entry into the choppy waters of Spanish cycling made headlines south of the Pyrénées simply due to the size and symbolic significance of what the telecommunications giant brings to the table.
The team’s official rollout Tuesday at the company’s sprawling campus-like headquarters north of Madrid set the bar of what company officials and team management expect in the three-year, $40 million commitment.
Telefónica — the holding company behind the Movistar cell phone service provider — is Spain’s largest company and the third largest telecommunications company in the world.
Its decision to back one of cycling’s longest-running teams came last summer when company president César Alierta realized that the team was left without a title sponsor after Caisse d’Epargne announced it would be leaving at the end of the 2010 season.
Luís Abril, the company’s general secretary, recalled a phone call from Alierta last August.
“I was on vacation on the road to St. Malo in France’s Brittany when César called, ‘Is it true that the team will be without a sponsor at the end of the season?’ I replied,’ yes, it’s true,’ ” Alierta said. “He asked, ‘do you know them? Well, sign them up.’ That call happened on August 7 and by August 16, the deal was finalized.”
Abril had known longtime team sport director and now general manager Eusebio Unzue for years and a few quick phone calls put the ball into motion.
By mid-August, the team was on the verge of collapsing. Riders were getting edgy about the team’s uncertainty and were losing patience with Unzue’s promises of a forthcoming sponsorship deal to secure the team’s future.
A few of the team’s top riders took offers from other teams, namely Luís León Sánchez to Rabobank and Rigoberto Urán and Xavier Zandio, who each moved to Team Sky.
The others held out and they’re glad they did. The team now has the backing of the most important Spanish sponsor to enter the sport in more than a decade.
Alierta and Abril both confessed their long-running affection for cycling and recalled the team’s “golden years” during the 1980s and 1990s, when the team raced under the Reynolds and then Banesto flags, as one of their main motivations to support the Spanish team.
In fact, the team brought out all of its former stars as part of the hour-long team presentation Tuesday, with Angel Arroyo, Pedro Delgado, Julián Gorospe, Abraham Olano and Oscar Pereiro all making appearances. Miguel Indurain made a last-minute cancellation.
Abril, a former professor who now helps run the international telecommunications giant, also recounted a conversation he had with a former student he ran into at an airport. The news was already out that Movistar was backing the team and the student asked how the company would dare to sponsor a bike team as the sport faces continued challenges with doping.
“I told him, ‘we’re going to make history.’ It’s the first time that a truly global company — Telefónica has operations in 26 countries — has backed a truly global team. This team will shine,” Abril said. “Second, I said we’re going to help them now because cycling is passing through a bad moment, but it’s making improvements, and the time to help someone is not when they’re at the top, but when they need help. And finally, it’s a commercial project. We’re going to carry the message of Movistar around the world.”
Movistar plans to use the sponsorship deal to raise its media profile, especially in the emerging Latin American market, where Movistar is the largest international provider.
A key component to the marketing push is the formation of a continental team based in Bogota, Colombia, featuring 15 riders from eight Latin American countries that will serve as a “feeder team” for the top-level European squad.
The Movistar sweepstakes came too late for Unzue to sign any major stars. He missed a shot at Alberto Contador by a matter of days but with Contador’s ongoing legal battle, Unzue is probably quietly thankful he didn’t buy into that. Unzue also missed out on a chance to sign Denis Menchov, who used to race with Banesto before moving to Rabobank.
With Alejandro Valverde serving a two-year ban for his links to the Operación Puerto blood doping ring dating back to 2006, the team will ride into its debut season without a major road captain.
David Arroyo, second in last year’s Giro d’Italia, and Xavier Tondo, who notched a top-10 in last year’s Vuelta a España, will have a chance to show their value. The team will also look to Juan Mauricio Soler, the inconsistent Colombian climber, to make a run at the Giro.
Movistar brass say they’re not putting any pressure on the team to produce results, just to ride hard and follow the rules.
“It’s an unprecedented opportunity, so take advantage of it,” Abril said. “Race with tranquility, without pressure of immediate results, giving your maximum. We’re putting in your hands one of our most important brands and we only ask that you honor that trust.”
Movistar Team for 2011
(riders from 2010 lineup):
New riders for 2011:
Riders leaving for 2011: