Spanish cycling weathers the storm as new stars shine

With many legends of Spanish cycling retired, a new generation of riders steps up to prove that the future is bright.

Just when it looked like the sun was setting on Spanish cycling, a new generation of riders boldly stepped up over the weekend to prove they’re already here.

Call it the Spanish Armada, Version 2.0.

About six months after Alberto Contador retired as Spain’s biggest star, a swarm of young, ambitious riders from south of the Pyrénées is reminding everyone Spain remains a major force in the peloton.

In racing across Europe’s first major stage races, Spain’s Generation Y is filling the void. In France, Marc Soler (Movistar) won Paris-Nice in a dramatic final-stage coup and David de la Cruz (Sky) won the stage. Bahrain-Merida’s Izagirre brothers also shined, with Gorka finishing third despite crashing with his brother, Jon, late in the stage.

“I’ve never won a WorldTour race, so this is a dream come true,” Soler said. “To be on the palmares with such big names is something incredible.”

The full-page treatment in Spain’s MARCA sports daily said it all, “Just like Indurain,” referring to Soler’s victory at 24 as the same age as Miguel Indurain when he won it in 1989.

In Italy, Mikel Landa (Movistar) confirmed he’s the rider whom many expect to be Spain’s biggest star in the post-Contador era with a dramatic stage victory Saturday at Tirreno-Adriatico.

“This win confirms that I am heading in the right direction,” Landa said. “The first win with a new team is also good for the confidence.”

Landa’s off-season move to Movistar positions the brash Basque rider to pick up the mantle from Contador and Alejandro Valverde, the last of Spain’s golden generation who shows no signs of slowing down. For Movistar boss Eusebio Unzué, it was important to sign Landa and bring him to Spain’s marquee WorldTour team.

“We wanted to have Landa, who is I think the next big leader in Spanish cycling,” Unzué said last fall. “We are an international team, but we are a Spanish team first. It will always be part of our heritage.”

The weekend’s winning results are also an important validation that Spanish cycling has weathered the storm.

The sport took a beating over much of the past decade at the institutional level during Spain’s economic crisis. Budget cuts eviscerated the Spanish cycling federation. The once-overflowing Spanish race calendar shrunk, in large part due to austerity programs that zapped critical funding from regional governments that once backed weeklong races in nearly every corner of Spain.

The Spanish accent in the peloton has been reduced to just Movistar at the WorldTour level. Spain once boasted nine elite teams during its heyday more than a decade ago.

With fewer racing opportunities at home, Spain’s top young riders were forced to go international. This two-wheeled diaspora is a reflection of a larger globalization of the peloton. Only the French, to a large degree, have remained true to the national pedigree. Most major WorldTour teams today boast international DNA, with riders from dozens of nations.

Landa raced at Astana and Sky before landing with Movistar this year. It’s the opposite for the Izagirre brothers, who both raced at Movistar before joining Bahrain-Merida.

For 2018, there are 31 Spanish riders across 10 WorldTour teams. Movistar has the most, with 14. Sky, which has long counted on Spanish workhorses, is the second most with four.

There are still a few aging workhorses, like Valverde, Luis León Sánchez (Astana), Mikel Nieve (Mitchelton-Scott) and Igor Antón (Dimension Data). But it’s the younger riders like Landa, Soler, Oscar Fraile (Astana), Enric Mas (Quick-Step), and the Izagirre brothers that gets everyone excited in Spain.

In fact, it’s the 23-year-old Mas that Contador dubbed as the “next big thing” in Spanish cycling.

“Those are nice words, but that brings a lot of pressure,” Mas demurred. “I don’t like to have that kind of pressure, but I will keep working to be the best I can.”

It’s a testament to the depth and talent of Spanish riders that the sport weathered the nearly decade-long economic downturn. And there are promising signs that the worse is behind the Spanish peloton as Spain’s economy continues to grow at a brisk, Europe-leading pace. Governments and businesses are starting to invest again in cycling.

The Tour of Valencia, which went dormant during the worse years of the crisis, is back on the calendar since 2016 following a seven-year absence. The Vuelta a España is booming and remains an important seasonal focus for the Spanish calendar.

This year, two teams — Burgos-BH and Euskadi-Murias — stepped up the Professional Continental level to join Caja Rural. That means there are three major development teams and Movistar at the WorldTour level to help develop the next generation of Spanish talent.

For years, Spanish fans were spoiled with a wealth of home teams. Led by Contador, a generation of riders including Joaquim Rodríguez, Carlos Sastre, Óscar Freire and Valverde proudly carried the Spanish flag into the post-Indurain era. Spain savored an unparalleled run at the top for more than a decade, overshadowed only by the dominance of the now-banned Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France.

Now it’s up to riders like Landa and Soler to keep Spain in the headlines. They certainly seem up to the task.

“Now I’ve got to keep working and progress step by step,” Soler said. “Every year I feel a little bit stronger, and I feel more comfortable at the [WorldTour] level. I am just thinking about improving.”