It was all smiles at the Movistar press conference on Thursday but, in a huge conference room at the Crowne Plaza hotel near Brussels airport, the big elephant in the room was the simple but also complex question: who will be team leader for the Spanish squad at the Tour de France?
In 2018, Movistar presented their three tenors - Alejandro Valverde, Nairo Quintana and Mikel Landa - putting them on an equal footing and insisting they had the combined strength to take on Team Sky and anyone else.
That plan failed miserably, with Landa finishing 7th, Quintana 10th and Valverde 14th.
Movistar changed their plans for 2019. Quintana claimed he was team leader and built his season around the Tour de France, while Landa and Valverde were supposed to target the Giro d’Italia. Crashes, injuries and destiny have thrown them all together yet again for July.
Valverde has taken a veteran road captain role after he crashed hard in the Ardennes but both Quintana and Landa have made it clear they want a leadership role and are both aiming for overall victory at the Tour de France.
Both were enigmatic as they faced questions, Quintana his usual sphinx-like self, Landa confident about his form and ready to ride his own race. During the half hour of questions, there was no real eye contact or interaction between the two, despite siting next to each other. There was a distinct sense of rivalry behind the smiles and answers, even if experienced team manger Eusebio Unzué insisted having two leaders is a necessity in modern Grand Tour racing.
"A lot of unexpected things happen in Grand Tours these days, there’s a lot of tension and it’s normal to crash at least once, so it’s always good to share the team leadership responsibility. It’s also good for strategy, and important to have a Plan B," Unzué told Cyclingnews as his team prepared for their 37th consecutive Tour de France.
Quintana and Landa both hope to be Movistar’s Plan A, but Unzué made it clear they start on an equal footing.
"They start at the same level. If we get to the flat stages without any problems then the mountains will reveal who is the strongest. For now, it’s important Nairo and Mikel respect each other. In the end, the road decides who is strongest and then the other knows they have to work for whoever that is.
"We can’t possibly question Nairo’s leadership, but Mikel is in great form and that’ll help him be another option. The team won’t be weaker because of that; we’ve got two options, and we’re lucky to have them."
A game of diplomacy
Quintana and Landa played a diplomatic game in front of the media but neither backed down an inch from their leadership claims.
Landa had no problem about riding the Tour de France after recently finishing fourth overall at the Giro d’Italia behind teammate and surprise winner Richard Carapaz.
"I feel very good, I finished the Giro in good shape and think I’ve recovered well. Of course, I’ve never bee too good in the first few days of a Grand Tour but this time I’m hopeful," Landa said.
"I wouldn’t dare to say we’re the strongest team but we’ve got a good all-round team with riders for the early stages and for the mountains. We're maybe stronger than other years."
Quintana was just a little more controlled.
"Like every year, there are some nerves but there’s nothing in particular that worries me. There’s also the desire to start the race and start pedaling," he said. "For my part, I am quite confident about the team we have. The only thing we need is some good luck so that we can perform at our best."
Many feel 2019 will finally see a Colombian win the Tour de France, with Egan Bernal (Team Ineos), Rigoberto Urán (EF Education First) and Quintana perhaps even filling an all-Colombian podium in Paris.
"That’s too big a thing to even to think about, but when there’s Egan, Rigoberto and me, then anything can happen," Quintana said.
Quintana also seemed concerned about Jakob Fuglsang and his strong Astana team but warned that Team Ineos could be just as strong and controlling as ever, even in the absence of four-time winner Chris Froome.
Valverde has tried to avoid taking sides in any power struggle, happy to target his own races and enjoy his year as world champion. While Landa may well move on to Bahrain-Merida in 2020 and Quintana seems more and more likely to head to Arkea-Samsic, Valverde has signed a new deal at Movistar which will see him stay on after he retires in 2021.
Valverde looked thinner and older than over, confirming he has slimmed down for the Tour de France after winning the recent Route d'Occitanie race.
"I’ve lost a bit of weight, but so has everybody. I decided to lose some weight, to see how it can help," Valverde said.
"I am here without any pressure; I’m here to help the leaders: Nairo and Mikel. What I've done so far in June has been quite good, I'm in better shape than two weeks ago, and we came here to the Tour to give our best for the teammates. There are bigger objectives than the yellow jersey and they’re in good shape.
"If I can help, then I will. But these two are clever enough to know what to do."
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