Spanish squad lifted by Valverde, invisible at Spring Classics
The return of Alejandro Valverde to racing in 2012 with Movistar saw Spain's top WorldTour team expected to lift their game considerably - and they duly did. Seven more wins than in 2011, where the team was battered by injuries and its collective morale hit by the death of Xavi Tondo, is only one facet of Movistar's overall improvement. Highlight performances included the Tour de Suisse overall for Rui Costa, Valverde's gutsy second place and a stunning opening team time trial triumph in the Vuelta a España - all signs that Movistar was dialling many of the right numbers in 2012.
However, there were some notable missed calls, too. The team were all but invisible in the Spring Classics (where Valverde in particular, as a former double Liege winner, has shone in the past). Injuries in the Tour for Valverde did not stop him from taking a spectacular stage win on the last day of the Pyrenees, but for a squad which has taken seven Tour victories overall in the past, last July was hardly the most memorable. Nor indeed - two stage wins notwithstanding - was Movistar's collective ride in the Giro, with their best rider overall Sergio Pardilla in a unremarkable eighteenth.
Sprinter Jose Joaquin Rojas and late signing Juan Jose Cobo, winner of the Vuelta in 2011, both failed to live up to the mark - Rojas abandoning in both the Tour and the Vuelta. Rojas at least had a fine stage win in the Basque Country to his name, but Cobo was so far out of the proverbial picture all year it would need a pretty large reframe to get him back in. Who knows, maybe 2013 will be a different story for Spain's most enigmatic rider.
Still, nobody could complain about Fran Ventoso being the second Movistar rider to win the Spanish Nationals in as many years or Valverde making a spectacular return to racing in the Tour Down Under when he outgunned Simon Gerrans (Orica GreenEdge) at Willunga Hill, or indeed a superb season-long performance by Colombia's Nairo Quintana. Victory over the Joux Plane in the Criterium du Dauphiné was just one of six classy wins for South America's most promising young rider, the Giro d'Emilia another and Quintana's ability to maintain his form throughout the season bodes well for the 22-year-old - and for Movistar, too.
Whilst Andrey Amador's unexpected but richly desrved mountain win in the Giro put Costa Rican cycling on the map with a bang, the severely under-rated Rui Costa continued to go from strength to strength. Capturing the Tour de Suisse was the jewel in the Portuguese rider's crown for 2012, but he was never far from the action from February to October, from fifth in the Tour of the Algarve to ninth in the Tour of Beijing.
At the centre of it all, though, for Movistar has been Valverde, where only the Ardennes Classics and his rather fuzzy attitude to his two year suspension have not earned him any new fans, for very different reasons.
At the other end of the sporting spectrum, in the Vuelta a España Valverde rode far above expectations. After coming in as a support rider, he took over the role (albeit initially somewhat unwillingly) of leader from his ill team-mate Juan Jose Cobo and in the process led the race, won two stages and the points jersey as well as taking second overall. Despite his bronze medal in the World's being taken in rather controversial circumstances, it's safe to say that in 2012 Valverde has returned to being a key player in the peloton after his suspension - and Movistar will surely continue to reap the benefits.
What to expect in 2013
Hopefully for Movistar, a return to form for Valverde in the Ardennes Classics, whilst Rui Costa's win in the Tour de Suisse 2012 gives grounds for optimism for Portugal's number one pro in other prestigious week-long events. Nairo Quintana, too, should step up a notch or two in races like the Dauphine and Paris-Nice and perhaps in the Grand Tours.
Could a top three in the Tour be out of the question for Valverde? Given the minimal amounts of time trialling, not to mention Movistar's boosted firepower in the mountains with the signing of Eros Capecchi and Sylvester Szymd, it can't be ruled out. Either that or a crack at victory in the Vuelta seem likely for Valverde. And given Cobo's past talent for shining in alternate years, after 2012's debacle, mathematically speaking at least 2013 should be outstanding for "the Bison of La Pesa."
Brit Alex Dowsett will boost Movistar both in the time trials - where he could be a very valuable factor for Valverde in the team event in the Tour - and should have a lot to say in his own right in anything with a half-decent race against the clock in it. As Sylvester Szymd (who, curiously enough, was gifted the one victory of his career, on the Ventoux in the 2009 Dauphine, by Valverde) is one of the top three climbing domestiques in the world.
Vasil Kiryienka is an uneven performer, but on a good day (for example the Alpine stage to Sestriere in the ultra-hard 2011 Giro ) the rider from Belarus is easily a match for the top climbers. If Kiryenka repeats his feats of 2011 (and not 2012, which was not great barring a bronze in the World's time trial) at Sky, Movistar may well regret letting him move on.
Man to watch
Nairo Quintana. Given the way the Colombian was ripping races apart on the climbs last year, the 22-year-old could well leave more established Latin American riders in the shade again in 2013.
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