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Tour de France: Can Movistar's new-look trident avoid past shambles?

Enric Mas, Miguel Angel López and Alejandro Valverde will lead Movistar at the 2021 Tour de France
Enric Mas, Miguel Angel López and Alejandro Valverde will lead Movistar at the 2021 Tour de France (Image credit: Bettini Photo)

Which Movistar will turn up at the Tour de France? The slick, cohesive unit that has a long history of challenging for, and winning, Grand Tour titles? Or the rather shambolic outfit on display in The Least Expected Day, the documentary of the Spanish team that is currently into its second season on Netflix?

The documentary is captivatingly watchable because it presents both the very good and, to the team’s credit, the very bad of Movistar's 2020 season. On the one hand, there's a wonderful drone-shot segment that highlights the team's organisation and togetherness, the camera swooping over a pace line of riders moving very swiftly and in perfect harmony. 

On the other, there's the car crash moment on the penultimate day of last year's Vuelta a España when they were accused of chasing down former teammate Richard Carapaz as an act of vengeance for him leaving them to join Ineos Grenadiers at the end of the previous season. 

Dotted throughout the series are also plenty of tongue-in-cheek references by the team's riders to 'El Tridente', the three-headed leadership approach that Movistar have adopted at the Tour in recent seasons. It always sounds like it should work, but has rarely proved to be effective. In 2019, for instance, Nairo Quintana, Mikel Landa and the evergreen Alejandro Valverde all finished in the top 10 at the Tour, without any of them looking like a potential podium finisher, let alone the overall winner.

The Spanish team will start the 2021 Tour this coming weekend with a variation of that three-pronged attack. Off-season signing Miguel Ángel López, sixth overall last year, will be co-leader with Enric Mas, who was fifth in 2020. 41-year-old Valverde, meanwhile, will have a lesser role, looking for stage wins on the days that suit him and otherwise offering his strength and experience to López and Mas.

Will it work? The three riders have only raced together at one event so far this season, the Critérium du Dauphiné, which took place earlier this month, and events there suggested a good degree of harmony between this new troika of leaders. López, the strongest of the three in the eight-day race, received strong support from the other two as he finished sixth overall, just 38 seconds down on winner Richie Porte. 

The team's coherence was most apparent on stage 6, which featured an uphill finish into Le-Sappey-en-Chartreuse that would have been meat and drink to Valverde in his prime. On the lumpy run-in, Movistar’s domestiques took control of the bunch, with Mas and then López pushing the pace higher on the final two climbs and whittling down the pack. Finally, on the ramps up to the line, Valverde showed he can still produce a very rapid turn of speed as he left the opposition for dead.

It was a hugely significant for victory for the Spanish team, and you could see it in the riders' ecstatic reactions. They'd put together a plan, all contributed, and it had paid off in exactly the way they'd hoped.

"Alejandro's victory was very important, it's given us a lot of confidence, especially because every member of the team was involved in it," climber Carlos Verona confirmed. "We were feeling really good, it was a completely different story to last year, and I think that Alejandro's victory was the final piece of morale that we needed. When you’ve got a good dynamic within the team, good things do start to happen."

Their rivals were impressed, too. 

"Movistar have always been a strong team with good leaders, the problem has sometimes been that their tactics have not been right. But they rode yesterday’s stage perfectly to set it up for Valverde," said Cofidis leader Guillaume Martin the morning after that Valverde win. "They took control when they needed to and were really strong. It was impressive to see."

'The situation is looking very good'

Reflecting on the team's Dauphiné performance following the final stage into Les Gets, López also highlighted the cohesiveness and confidence within the group being readied for the Tour.

"That solidity has been the most important thing to come out of the last few days," said the Colombian. "We won the stage with Alejandro, we went quite close on other days. We're heading for the Tour with high hopes."

Team boss Eusebio Unzué brought López into the Spanish team because of the Colombian's proven ability to last the pace over the three weeks of a Grand Tour, as well as to take some of the pressure of leadership from Mas in the season's biggest race. The pair appear to complement each other well.

"The key thing is that they have to talk to each other during key stages, to let each other know how they’re feeling and in that moment we can make the decision on what we need to do," Verona said following the Dauphiné's queen stage to La Plagne, where López was third having been helped by Mas, who finished eighth.

"A lot of the planning does happen during the stages because you can't know beforehand how the other teams will race, how your legs will be, and the riders have to be able to get that right," Verona added.

López, meanwhile, insisted that having two leaders rather than being the solitary figurehead that he often was during his time at Astana will be beneficial. "It’s a strength to be able to share the leadership, to be able to rely on each other," the Colombian said at the Dauphiné’s end. "The situation is looking very good."

This all points to Movistar having a significant impact at the Tour, and in the positive way that they would want, challenging for their first podium finish since Quintana placed third in 2016. 

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Peter Cossins has written about professional cycling since 1993 and is a contributing editor to Procycling. He is the author of The Monuments: The Grit and the Glory of Cycling's Greatest One-Day Races (Bloomsbury, March 2014) and has translated Christophe Bassons' autobiography, A Clean Break (Bloomsbury, July 2014).