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Movistar bets on its youth movement to fill void at top of Spanish peloton

Movistar is betting on a youth movement to help fill the void when the likes of Contador and Valverde retire from the peloton

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Spain’s dominance across the international peloton is on borrowed time. Riders such as Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Samuel Sánchez (BMC Racing), and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) are all well into their 30s, and each promises not to overstay his welcome.

Between the “cuatro galácticos,” they’ve won grand tours, one-day classics, and Olympic medals, and notched world championship podiums. Thanks to their reliability, Spain has enjoyed an incredible ride over the past decade.

Yet all four are hinting they’re not long for the peloton. Now 34, Valverde has penned a three-year contract extension through 2017, while Contador, 32, has suggested he might retire after one big win, such as another Tour de France victory. Rodríguez, 35, is off contract at the end of this season, but said he’d like to race at least two more seasons. Sánchez, 37, only signed in late January with BMC Racing for one more season to keep his career on legs.

That closing of a cycle is creating anxiety south of the Pyrénées, where the Spanish peloton has been rocked by economic crisis, doping scandals, and pinched budgets that have seen a plethora of teams and races fold. The once-mighty Spanish presence in the elite peloton has been reduced to just one WorldTour team, Movistar, and one Professional Continental team, Caja Rural.

An heir to the collective throne currently held by Contador, Valverde, Sánchez, and Rodríguez hasn’t emerged. Riders such as Igor Antón or Beñat Intxausti have scored some impressive one-off results, but have been unable to take that next step to seriously challenge for grand tours.

Yet there are a few hopeful signs of a rejuvenation from below. Despite diminishing opportunities for amateurs and young pros to get their foot in the door, legitimate talent does eventually shine through.

Movistar is doing its part to develop young Spanish riders. Team boss Eusebio Unzué has a half-dozen young riders he’s poised to unleash on the peloton this year.

Despite an international lineup that includes riders from nearly a dozen nations, Movistar is committed to nurturing homegrown talent. With its future secure through 2016, Movistar brass are betting on Spanish youth to fill the void.

“We have two goals here. The first is built around our confirmed captains, such as Valverde, Quintana, and others, and we bring strong support for them to win in every race we go to,” Unzué said. “The other is our development program, with young riders who will be seeing more chances this year. There’s room for everyone.”

Movistar certainly has richness in depth, both among its veterans and budding talents.

Jesús Herrada, 24, younger brother of teammate José, is one tapped by many for bigger things. Ion Izagirre, 26, another younger brother of a teammate, Gorka, has twice been second overall at the Tour of Poland, and won a stage at the Giro d’Italia in 2012.

With Valverde and Nairo Quintana — whose younger brother, Dayer, also races on Movistar, giving the team three pairs of brothers — set to race the Tour de France and Vuelta a España, the team is giving riders such as Intxausti, Herrada, and Izagirre a chance to shine at the Giro.

“We have the Giro for younger riders, who are looking for their chance to lead,” Unzué continued. “We have Nairo and Alejandro for the Tour and Vuelta, so the Giro is an ideal race for these rising talents to have the full support of the team, to see what they can do.”

Below them, there are other more promising Spanish riders Movistar is hoping to spring in the next few years. Among them are Marc Soler, 21, and Juan José Lobato, 26, the punchy sprinter on the verge of a major breakout. Lobato won his first WorldTour race with a stage at the Santos Tour Down Under last month, and he will see an ambitious racing schedule that includes Milano-Sanremo, where he was fourth last year, as well as the Giro.

Perhaps the rider with the most GC promise is Rubén Fernández, winner of the 2013 Tour de l’Avenir, where he beat back the promising Yates brothers. At 24, Fernández is expected to make his grand tour debut at the Giro in May.

“We’ll see how he develops. He certainly has a lot of talent. You don’t win the Avenir by chance,” said Movistar sport director José Luis Arrieta. “We don’t want to put too much pressure on him. He will have a chance to grow into the rider he’s meant to be. Whether that means he can challenge in grand tours simply remains to be seen.”

After two seasons with Caja Rural, Fernández made the jump to the World Tour level with Movistar for this season. His debut in team colors was impressive enough, finishing third at the Willunga Hill stage and finishing fifth overall at the Santos Tour Down Under last month, just four seconds off the podium.

Fernández hails from Murcia, the same region as Valverde, and is anxious to see what he can do this season.

“I hope I can keep it going. Now it’s complicated to think about what I can achieve this season, but I’d like to try to win a stage and fight for the GC in some stage races,” Fernández said in a recent interview. “My results at the Tour Down Under gave me a little more confidence in myself. I know I can fight with the best.”

Like many of his younger Movistar teammates, he will be getting his chances to shine in the coming weeks and months. For the Tour and Vuelta, Movistar will bring experienced veterans to back up Valverde and Quintana, but there are plenty of opportunities on the calendar for Movistar’s crop of young riders to have their shot at results.

Fernández races this weekend at the Vuelta a Murcia on home roads Saturday, then at the Volta ao Algarve in Portugal on Wednesday. After that, it’s another WorldTour race with Paris-Nice and then a likely grand tour debut at the Giro.

“I am happy with the calendar this season,” he said. “I’ve really worked hard over the winter. I’m excited to see what I can do this season.”

So is everyone else in Spain.