Team Movistar manager: ‘We’ll have a strong team despite no big captain’

For the first time since the team’s early days in the early 1980s, before Reynolds evolved into super-teams under the Banesto, Illes Balears and Caisse d’Epargne banners, Eusebio Unzue won’t have a major GC captain to carry the squad into the grand tours.

Xavier Tondo, here winning stage 3 of the Tour of Catalonia, will be one of Movistar's hopes for 2011

Eusebio Unzue, manager of the newly backed Movistar team, is entering unfamiliar territory next season.

For the first time since the team’s early days in the early 1980s, before Reynolds evolved into super-teams under the Banesto, Illes Balears and Caisse d’Epargne banners, Unzue won’t have a major GC captain to carry the squad into the grand tours.

“We’re a team that’s always had a big captain, but we won’t have one this year,” Unzue told VeloNews via telephone from a team camp this week. “We’re kind of like we were when we first started Reynolds in the 1980s, it’s almost as if we’re starting anew.”

Unzue has been at the sharp end of the action in Spanish cycling for more than three decades as sport director and later team manager of Spain’s longest-running pro teams. He was the sport director during the Banesto glory days of Perico Delgado and later Miguel Indurain’s five consecutive Tour de France victories in the 1990s and took over the management of the team when José Miguel Echevarri retired a few years ago

But with Alejandro Valverde sitting out this season as part of a controversial two-year ban for his links to Operación Puerto and the late arrival of the Movistar title sponsor, Unzue missed out on a chance to sign a major star like Alberto Contador or Denis Menchov.

Unzue finds himself in a strange situation of having a major backer with Spain’s telecommunications giant Movistar but without a marquee name to carry the team into its debut season under the new sponsor.

“This year will be a transition year for the team, but we still have high expectations,” Unzue said. “We want to solidify the team this season to build a solid block, then we can see who we can attract next season. We will have a strong team despite not having a big captain.”

Unzue enters the 2011 season with a bench full of excellent domestiques and rising prospects, but no big breakout star he can count on to contend for victory in three-week tours.

Gone are 12 riders, including budding stars Luís León Sánchez (to Rabobank) and Rigoberto Urán (to Sky). Also gone is steady helper Xabio Zandio (also to Sky) and Juan José Cobo (to Geox) while headline-grabber (at least in France) Christophe Moreau retired.

The team kept Giro runner-up David Arroyo and Unzue hopes that crash-prone Juan Mauricio Soler can return to the same heights he had when the Colombian won a stage and the King of the Mountains jersey during the 2007 Tour de France.

Helping to fill the void are 10 new arrivals, including likely Vuelta a España team captain Xavier Tondo (who rode well for Cervélo last season), Ignatus Konovalovas, another Cervélo refugee and promising talent, and Beñat Intxausti, a young Basque who was third last year behind winner Chris Horner at the Vuelta al País Vasco.

There are some suggestions that the team could sign Franco Pellizotti, cleared of doping allegations from the biological passport program. Unzue denied rumors that he’s hoping to lure away Menchov from the Geox team.

“There’s absolutely nothing to that story,” Unzue said. “Sometimes journalists’ imaginations get the better of themselves.”

Unzue admits he missed a chance to sign a major grand tour contender due to the late arrival of Movistar, but insisted he’s more pleased with the entrée of one of Spain’s biggest companies into the cycling arena.

Movistar — a multi-national telecom giant with operations across Europe and Latin America based in Spain — didn’t confirm its multi-year sponsorship deal until mid-August, too late for Unzue to enter the GT sweepstakes, including a late-hour run at Contador who had already committed to Bjarne Riis at Saxo Bank.

“The sponsorship deal wasn’t finalized until late in the summer. By then, the big names were already signed up,” he said. “We believe we have a block of riders who can be competitive all season long.”

The multi-year, multi-million-euro Movistar deal offers Unzue a lifeline to keep the team afloat. The squad was facing a bleak future following the damaging scandal around Valverde (whom Unzue continues to defend) as well as deep economic crisis sweeping across Spain.

French bank Caisse d’Epargne did not extend its title sponsorship and Movistar entered the scene quite late, leaving Unzue scrambling to keep his top riders.

The combination of doping scandals and economic woes has cut a deep swath across Spanish cycling, but Unzue has weathered the storm yet again and landed one of the biggest and most important sponsors to enter the sport in years.

“We are very pleased that Movistar has backed cycling, especially in these difficult times of crisis, both financial and with the image of the sport,” he said. “This is an important step for the sport, maybe other (Spanish) sponsors will become interested once again.”