First there was the Tour of Flanders.
Next on the list for Movistar women’s team: Paris-Roubaix and the incoming women’s Tour de France.
Movistar is the latest team to position itself as a major contender in the women’s peloton as more and more team elbow for the spoils at the top of the sport. After struggling to make it into the top-15 in the world rankings in its nascent years, the team now ranks second in both the victory standings and in the world rankings behind SD Worx.
A large part of Movistar’s recent success has come at the hands of its all-conquering new team leader Annemiek van Vleuten.
With offers in from some of the peloton’s top teams, some may have been surprised to see the Dutch woman opt for the Spanish set-up, but she saw an opportunity to make women’s racing more competitive.
“When I signed with Movistar, I had so many comments about people that completely didn’t understand why I would sign with them,” van Vleuten told VeloNews. “They’re really a well-organized and super professional team, but they didn’t have all the results yet. I think they had a lack of a leader, but they have great infrastructure. So yeah, then I smelled the challenge.
“I think it’s important to develop in women’s cycling so more teams have leaders, and more teams take responsibility. There has been a huge step this year in women’s cycling. There are so many teams that take responsibility in the race and they go with a plan to win the race and that makes the races way more hard and more attractive.”
Movistar joined the increasing list of men’s teams to add a women’s arm in 2018.
The team’s ambitions were clear last year when it was among the first eight to register to become a Women’s WorldTour team, but it lacked the firepower to translate that into success.
Last year, the team ended the season 16th in the world standings with a win at the 1.2 La Périgord Ladies the only visit to the top spot.
Van Vleuten and fellow new signing Emma Norsgaard have delivered five wins for the team so far – including its first monument at the Tour of Flanders and the overall win at the recent Festival Elsy Jacobs. National titles aside, it is already more than the team won during its first three years of racing.
With some momentum behind it, the team has set its sights on world domination.
“I would like to have one of the best teams in the world,” general manager Sebastián Unzué told VeloNews. “We have set ourselves really ambitious goals already this year and I want our young athletes to continue growing and developing.”
Before the start of the season, van Vleuten asked Unzué what race he wanted to win most with the women’s team. Without hesitation, the answer came: the Tour of Flanders.
Thanks team @Movistar_Team for all the hard work before, during and after @RondeVlaanderen Everyone was still waiting for me (some hours after the finish!) and to see all the happy faces 👇was GOLD. Ride and Win together. ❤️ #RodamosJuntos #DisfrutarJuntos https://t.co/F6RklIOEiQ pic.twitter.com/DHyJbGg5w5
— Annemiek van Vleuten (@AvVleuten) April 4, 2021
The cobbles of Flanders have rarely been a happy place for the men’s squad, but thanks to a new team leader, there was an opportunity to change that with the women’s team. Van Vleuten ensured Unzué could start ticking items off his wish-list almost immediately when she soloed to her first De Ronde victory in a decade.
“I’m remembering now and getting goosebumps. For me, if you ask me what race do you want to win I would have no doubt that the answer is Flanders,” Unzué said. “It is a race that traditionally the team has never specialised in, so we never really had the chance of winning.
“That month of the cobbled classics is really special, so for me winning Flanders was a dream come true to be honest. I was in the car and for the last four kilometers I had tears in my eyes because the feeling was that I was going to accomplish one of my dreams. It’s something I’m honestly never going to forget, winning Flanders for the first time with a rider like Annemiek.”
Next up on Unzué’s wish list for the women’s team is a win at Paris-Roubaix and a Tour de France title when it finally comes to be.
— Movistar Team (@Movistar_Team) April 4, 2021
Creating a world-beating team
You may recognize the Unzué name. Eusebio Unzué is the long-time general manager of men’s Movistar team, which has existed in some guise since 1980, and Sebastián, 29, is his eldest son. The younger Unzué has been climbing the ranks within his father’s team and was handed the reins at the women’s squad in 2019.
The core of the team that was there when Unzué stepped into the managerial role two years ago remains but with some key tweaks. Van Vleuten and Norsgaard were two of just four new additions to the squad for this year with Eider Merino the only departure over the winter.
For Unzué, hitting the big-time in 2021 only needed some tweaks around the edges rather than a wholesale overhaul of the line-up.
“I think we had the spine of the team already and I wanted to keep that because we had already a group of very committed riders and a lot of team riders and that’s some that we needed,” Unzué said. “For me, it was clear that we needed a big rider who was going to make the work of those riders have more sense.
“We needed a sprinter that was young and had a lot of potential and that’s where Emma came in. Also, one of the things I thought we needed was a dark horse that allowed us to play the tactical game in certain races and that’s where Leah Thomas came in. And then we have Sara Martin, and she is probably, from my point of view, the biggest young talent in Spanish cycling at the moment.”
Van Vleuten already had a connection with the men’s team, so when the women’s team was created for the 2018 season, she paid keen interest in it.
“I kept an eye on Movistar because I knew the team since 2013, and when I saw they started a women’s team I kept a close look at them,” van Vleuten said. “I saw a lot of talents, but I also saw that they may just need one or two percent to develop that a bit more to have more coaching.
“There is Paula Patiño, who was eight in the Giro last year, from Colombia, and Katrine Aalerud has just started cycling and is super talented. Leah Thomas very strong and also Emma Norsgaard, who is definitely getting to be super-fast printer. It’s exciting to be part of this process.
“Some of the girls are a little bit not ready to be leader yet, but I can help them to develop and to become leaders of the future.”