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All of Spain looked to Enric Mas to carry the cycling-crazed nation back to the Tour promised land, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Mas struggled across the 2022 Tour, and despite a solid first week, cracked on the key stages in the Alps and Pyrénées before leaving the race in stage 19 in 11th overall with COVID-19.
In a telling interview with Unzue told the Spanish daily El País, Movistar boss Eusebio Unzué says Mas needs more time to develop leadership qualities for a Tour team and space to evolve into a charismatic rider who can move an entire nation.
Unzué said the 27-year-old Mas still needs space to mature in order to handle the stress and responsibilities that come with being Spain’s top GC hope, suggesting that there were more than just physical problems that troubled Mas in July.
“The psychological block that Enric Mas suffered during the Tour is not normal,” Unzué told El País. “But it served us to believe that, at 27, he still doesn’t have the capacity to be a leader. He is still not prepared to take on the responsibility of a team and of the hopes of an entire nation.
“We have to be patient, and hope that he reaches that level of maturity. And I don’t dare say that he is ready to go to the Vuelta, but he’s never considered not going.”
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Fifth in his Tour debut in 2020, and sixth last year, Mas and Movistar started the Tour aiming optimistically for the podium.
Instead, Mas, who had already suffered heavy crashes on descents at Tirreno-Adriatico and the Critérium du Dauphiné, later struggled when the race turned into the Alps. He sat up during downhill sectors in the Tour for fear of crashing again, and could not match the winning accelerations at the front of the race.
In fact, it was American Tour rookie Matteo Jorgenson, who rode into four winning breakaways and finished in the top-5 three times to hit Paris in 21st overall, who surprised many inside the Movistar team bus.
Far from the glory days of the Spanish Armada
Spain suffered through its worst Tour de France in decades, with only nine starters in Copenhagen, and not much to show for it in Paris.
Ineos Grenadiers’ Jonathan Castroviejo and Movistar’s Carlos Verona, second and third respectively in stage 9 were the best among the proud Spanish peloton that long grew accustomed to winning yellow jerseys and dominating the peloton.
Unzué, who’s been in the Tour peloton since the 1970s dating back to Spain’s glory days at Reynolds and Banesto, said that cycling is undergoing a “new cycle,” with super-teams like Jumbo-Visma, Ineos Grenadiers, and UAE Team Emirates dominating the bunch just in the same way his teams did with Pedro Delgado and Miguel Indurain.
Unzué said if he had the same budget as the peloton’s richest team that Movistar would be right at the front of pack, and pushed back against the suggestion that somehow Movistar is a step behind the pulse of the peloton.
Instead, the team’s budget of about 15 million euros annually ranks in the middle bottom of the WorldTour. And with title sponsor Movistar’s contract ended at the end of this season, Unzué cannot be opening his pocketbook right now.
“The riders mark the differences, and to have good riders, you have to have to be able to go to the market with deep pockets,” said Unzué, who missed out on a chance to re-sign former Movistar rider Richard Carapaz, who seems destined to move to EF Education First-EasyPay.
Not all is grim. Movistar with Carapaz at the 2019 Giro d’Italia is still only among three teams since 2018 who’ve won a grand tour in the past five years other than the “big three.” The others are Simon Yates and BikeExchange-Jayco at the 2018 Vuelta a España, and Jai Hindley and Bora-Hansgrohe at the Giro in May. Every other grand tour since 2018 has been won by riders from Jumbo-Visma, Ineos Grenadiers, and UAE Team Emirates.
Ever the optimist, Unzué says better days are coming soon for Spanish cycling despite seeing such riders as Mikel Landa, Pello Bilbao, and Alejandro Valverde easing toward the twilight of their respective careers. Mas is re-upped through 2024.
Unzué is hoping to sign away one of the new crop of promising riders currently on rival teams, such as Carlos Rodríguez, Juan Ayuso, Raúl García or Igor Arrieta. None of them are household names yet, but Unzué is hoping to snag at least one of them.
“We will have a more interesting horizon in the next few years when some of those names are available,” he said. “Everything is a cycle. Don’t forget what we just had in Spanish cycling with Contador and Valverde … that’s just the way it is.”