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Meet Movistar’s latest weapon: Juanjo Lobato

Lobato might not be the next Oscar Freire, but the 26-year-old gives Movistar an extra kick in the hunt for the WorldTour team title

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If Movistar isn’t deep enough already, with Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana packing enough gunpowder to win in just about every race they start, the Spanish squad has added a sprinter to its arsenal of weapons.

Juanjo Lobato, a six-year pro from Spain’s Andalucía region who joined Movistar in 2014, is emerging as the nation’s best sprinter since Óscar Freire. A victory in stage 2 at the Santos Tour Down Under last week confirmed the 26-year-old’s trajectory with his first UCI WorldTour win.

“It was great to win at the WorldTour for the first time. It’s never easy to win a sprint at this level,” Lobato told VeloNews. “It reveals that I am heading in the right direction. I have to keep working, and hope to post a few more wins this season.”

Lobato isn’t built with the explosive engine of the likes of André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) or Marcel Kittel (Giant-Alpecin), and he’s the first to admit it, but he packs a punchy sprint that can catch the pure sprinters off guard.

“I am not a power sprinter like Kittel, and it’s hard for me to win when those type of sprinters are at the line,” Lobato continued. “I am better on uneven terrain, with a finale with a rising finish, or out of a smaller, more selective group.”

That type of philosophy fits perfectly into Movistar’s overall ambitions. The Spanish squad remains firmly committed to its GC foundation, with Quintana and Valverde both racing the Tour de France and Vuelta a España backed by spindly climbers and domestiques to push them as high as possible on the podium.

Valverde, too, handles himself well in the hillier one-day classics, and will be targeting the Ardennes this year. In fact, team boss Eusebio Unzué said one of the top goals for 2015 is to win one of cycling’s five monuments.

Lobato simply gives the team an extra edge without a lot of investment. Depending on the race, he might have one or two riders designated to help him in the sprints, but he certainly won’t be seeing a full team committed to setting up a bunch sprint train.

“Lobato is very good at finding his way in the bunch, jumping on wheels, taking advantage of the other trains,” said Movistar sport director José Luis Arrieta. “We’re not going to bring an entire squad to set up the sprints, but we believe Lobato can win quite a few races this season. We’ll support him enough to give him a good chance.”

Lobato’s win at the Tour Down Under came on the rising uphill finale at Stirling, on a hilly stage that saw Kittel lose contact with the main pack — just the kind of races Lobato hopes to excel at more in the future.

In 2014, he won two races — a stage at the Vuelta a Burgos and the Tour de Wallonnie (both 2.HC) — but he also finished second or third on eight other occasions.

“My real goal this season is to win more,” Lobato said. “My ideal would be to convert those second and third places into wins, and be more consistent in finishing off my sprints. I came close a lot last year. On one side, a bit frustrating, but overall, it only gave me more confidence and motivation that things are moving in the right direction.”

Movistar also believes Lobato has potential in the classics and one-day races. Last year, he posted top-10 finishes in such races as the Vattenfall Cyclassics and Milano-Sanremo, where he was an impressive fourth.

“It was a bit of a surprise for me to be fourth in Sanremo, especially since it was the first time I raced it,” Lobato said. “It’s a race I immediately liked. The harder and longer the race, the best it is for me. This year I will return with higher ambitions, but I also know this is an important race, with many big champions aiming to win.”

For 2015, he’ll continue with a mix of one-day races, classics, and shorter stage races. He’ll race next at the Dubai Tour and the Ruta del Sol before racing across the classics of Italy and Flanders. A start at the Giro d’Italia in May with real hopes of winning a stage.

Movistar is also backing Lobato in the sprints to help round out its lineup for another run at what would be a third straight WorldTour title. The team rankings are calculated by the points of the top-5 riders from each squad, and Lobato proved decisive in 2014, earning 74 points that helped Movistar beat out BMC Racing and Tinkoff-Saxo.

Upon his return to Spain following his winning season debut in Australia, the Spanish media has been quick to call him Spain’s next “Óscar Freire.” Since the three-time world champion retired following the 2012 season, Spain has been suffering from a lack of sprinting talent.

The rise of Lobato, who turned pro with Andalucía-Caja Sur in 2010 and raced with Euskaltel-Euskadi in 2013 before joining Movistar last year, is generating quite a buzz south of the Pyrénées.

“To compare me to Freire is difficult,” Lobato told the Spanish media outlet 20 Minutos. “I am not him. It’s simply that we both like the same type of races, and I hope to be at the front in all of them.”

So far, Lobato has been very close to the front. As he said, his goal for 2015 is to be at the very front across the line first a lot more than he has.