2014 Report Card: Movistar

Team's success disguise Spain's struggles

2014 Movistar team report card
WorldTour ranking: 1st (equal to 2013)
Win count: 34 (up two)
Top riders: Alejandro Valverde (1st); Nairo Quintana (6th); Beñat Intxausti (44th).

The bad news for Spanish cycling in 2014 was that Movistar are now the country's lone star in the WorldTour firmament. The good news was that as the sport's top ranked team in the UCI WorldTour classification, Movistar continued to shine so strongly this season that their current success rate easily eclipses Spain's fast-disintegrating future as a cycling nation.

The Giro d'Italia, with victory for Nairo Quintana, was unquestionably Movistar's highpoint of the season. Bizarrely, Movistar's huge strength in depth as a stage racing team had not actually reaped them an overall Grand Tour victory since 2009 in the Vuelta a España with Alejandro Valverde. The initially questioned decision to send Quintana to the Giro rather than get their promising young Colombian to return to the Tour therefore proved a wise choice indeed.

Whilst Colombia's first ever Giro win was not wholly exempt of controversy following the confusion surrounding the descent of the Stelvio - when the race was put on hold but only some riders appeared aware of this - Quintana's all round racing performance in Italy cannot be faulted. Bouncing back from illness in the second week to dominate in the Dolomites the way he did leaves no doubt about Quintana tenacity as well as his all-round strength. And there could be so much more to come from Quintana, too.

As Movistar manager Eusebio Unzué told Cyclingnews, the Colombian's strength of character is a little reminiscent of Bernard Hinault. His palmarès may not be a tenth of what Hinault amassed - yet - but Quintana certainly fended off the critics and his rivals in the Giro d'Italia with a degree of steely determination le Blaireau would surely have appreciated. (It is perhaps no coincidence, either, that Quintana is one of just five riders, amongst them Hinault, to win the Giro in his first ever participation - along with Michel Pollentier, Miguel Indurain and Alberto Contador.)

All in all, Quintana's Giro success on and off the bike augers very well for his chances and will hugely boost his confidence for the 2015 Tour de France - his next big goal. Furthermore, it simultaneously establishes Quintana, 24, as the frontrunner of the post- Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali and Contador generation of stage racers.

Yet for all Quintana was forced to abandon the Vuelta a España - his second objective of the season - after crashing badly in the mid-race time trial, Movistar did not lack a second leader in their home Grand Tour. With Quintana gone, the evergreen Valverde proved to be more than up to the task of claiming a well-deserved podium finish behind Contador and Froome. Valverde also netted a fine mountain-top stage win in La Zubia, and led the Vuelta for several days.

Valverde's season was a marked improvement on 2013, where despite his usual string of podium finishes from February to October, he only took four wins, all of them minor. This time round, his and Quintana's combined total of 18 victories (11 for the Spaniard, seven for Quintana) came to more than half of Movistar's final 2014 win count of 34.

Valverde's triumph in Fleche Wallonne, the Clásica San Sebastián - both for a second time in his career - the GP Miguel Indurain and the Roma Maxima were all proof of the 34-year-old's immense and continuing versatility. Those victories also saw Valverde rise from third place overall in the 2013 WorldTour classification to the top rank of all in 2014, ahead of no less a figure than Contador.

Is there a downside to Movistar's triumphant 2014 season? There's no denying Valverde's renewed run of success, together with Quintana's Giro victory, has helped hide Spain's steadily disintegrating future as a cycling nation - and perhaps thereby delay the search for solutions. Top results all year from their two prize performers, also - and equally unintentionally - overshadowed a drop in the win count for Movistar's second tier of riders like Giovanni Visconti or Beñat Intxausti. It also eclipsed the exit of certain key figures - take a bow Rui Costa - at the end of 2013.

But the non-stop wins could only shroud out the gloomier background news up to a point. The way Valverde was relentlessly ground out of the Tour podium in the Pyrenees, for example, indirectly highlighted Costa's absence from Movistar's ranks in the French race, given the rider from Portugal had won two Tour mountain stages the year before. It also meant Valverde's fourth place in Paris became the Spanish team's somewhat colourless high-water mark for 2014 in cycling's premier race.

The near-misses in Valverde's 2014 season are also significant, for all fourth in the Tour is a personal best. The Murcia rider's bronze medal in Ponferrada reinforces his almost infamous position as the all-time record-holder for podium finishers in the World Championships road race. It also represents his umpteenth near-miss, stretching back to silver in 2003 at Hamilton, in his so far fruitless struggle to add a rainbow jersey to his trophy cabinet.

In recent years, Valverde has become equally expert at hitting the goalposts in Liege-Bastogne-Liege - finishing third this year behind Simon Gerrans, the same result as he netted in 2013 and 2010 - in Amstel Gold (fourth in 2014, second in 2013) and Il Lombardia (second in 2014 and 2013). If Valverde wants to ensure his role as co-leader in Movistar is not threatened, assuming Quintana continues to shine in the Grand Tours, the Spaniard will have to raise his game in the Ardennes Classics at the very least. And another medal in Richmond of the 'wrong' colour, would strengthen calls for a changing of the guard - assuming there's anybody out there to replace Valverde, Rodriguez et al - of the top names in the Spanish World's line-up, starting with the Movistar man himself.

No such question marks, however, can hover over Movistar's all-round performance in 2014. Even without Contador, Froome or a top Classics rider, the Spanish squad retained their number one position in the WorldTour at team level and claimed the number one spot in the individual WorldTour rankings. Above all, though, they captured the Giro d'Italia with cycling's most promising young rider. Next year, Quintana's return to the Tour de France could well see Movistar snatch the sport's biggest prize of all.

What to expect in 2015: Grand Tours have always been Movistar's favoured battleground and the biggest goal of the season will be to win the Tour de France with Nairo Quintana. The Tour's medium-length team time trial at the end of the first week should not present a problem for the Colombian - Movistar have won the Vuelta's equivalent event for two of the last three years, after all, both times with Quintana taking part.

In fact, Quintana's biggest challenge will arguably be the race's return to the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, and avoiding crashes in the first week. After that, in the Pyrenees and Alps, Quintana will be in his element, two years older and stronger than when he finished second in his Tour debut in 2013, and on a route which is almost bending over backwards to favour the out-and-out climbers like the Colombian. Watch this space.

Meanwhile, Valverde is expected either to race in the Giro d'Italia - making his debut there after 13 years - or will return to the Tour but as the team's 'Plan B'. Finally, both Valverde and Quintana will tackle the Vuelta, presumably with the same division of roles. There is a school of thought out there that argues Valverde is past winning a Grand Tour. But if there is one year the Spanish veteran might prove them wrong in the Tour, 2015 is probably it. Limited individual time trialling, more Roubaix cobbles (which Valverde has adapted to better than any Grand Tour specialist barring Nibali) and lots of mountain racing are all factors in his favour.

Elsewhere whilst Valverde will be their man for the Ardennes Classics, Quintana will focus on week-long stage races like the Vuelta a Burgos and perhaps the Criterium du Dauphine. Beyond the team's co-leaders, Adriano Malori is currently Movistar's main man to watch.

The Italian proved a hugely successful signing in 2014 with victories in the Vuelta's final time trial and the Italian national championships, Tirreno-Adriatico and the Route du Sud. And following his victory in the Commonwealth Games and a stage of Circuite de la Sarthe, as well as a memorable long break to a brief leadership in the Tour of Britain, time trial expert Alex Dowsett is clearly at home and working well in the Spanish team. Pressure on riders like Visconti, Intxausti, Jon Izagirre and a hugely under-performing Igor Anton, to come up with the goods will be much higher.

Best signing: Following his major injuries in 2013, Colombian Winner Anacona (Lampre-Merida) is clearly on the comeback trail - as his spectacular win in Valdelinares at the Vuelta proved. Given Anton's uneven performance this year, Anacona could well be Nairo Quintana's strongest mountain domestique in the Tour next summer, too, or strike out on his own in the Giro.

Biggest loss: Two long-time stalwarts of the Spanish peloton, Jose Ivan Gutierrez and Ruben Plaza (both former national road-race champions) are leaving the squad, along with Polish climber Sylvester Szmyd. Now 36, Szmyd, a winner on the Mont Ventoux in the Dauphine five years back, when Valverde gifted him the victory, has barely featured on the radar of any mountain stage since he joined Movistar. As for the 35-year-old Gutierrez, a gifted time triallist with 25 wins in his palmarès, including two Eneco Tour victories as well as a silver medal in the World's TT in 2004, the former ONCE pro has hardly raced all season. Plaza, who rode solidly for Valverde in the Tour, will arguably be the hardest to replace.

Man to watch: 23-year-old Rubén Fernandez, formerly with Caja Rural, and Marc Soler, the only neo-pro to sign with Movistar in 2015, are two of the handful of young Spanish riders currently tipped to make an impact at a top level in international cycling. Fernandez is a former winner of the Tour de L'Avenir, in 2013, against rivals of the calibre of Adam Yates (Orica-GreenEdge). And Soler, 20, finished bronze in the time trial at the Spanish nationals last year, as well as winning the prestigious Vuelta a Bidasoa.

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