Longstanding Movistar manager Eusebio Unzue says that Giro d'Italia contender Mikel Landa (Team Sky) and the corsa rosa are extremely well suited to each other, given Landa's spontaneous, unpredictable style of racing and the Giro's equally unpredictable nature as a race.
First up for discussion, though was Valverde, and so far Unzue is more than pleased with how the 2009 Vuelta a España winner performed in the Apeldoorn time trial, and in his Giro d'Italia debut in general. The Spaniard's strong performance in the opening stage was "not a surprise in some ways", Unzue insisted, and indeed, it's often forgotten that Valverde won the Spanish national time trial championships in 2014.
"But his time trial was a surprise in other ways given how difficult it is in a time trial, to get a top result, when we saw how thoroughly the specialists had really done their homework and their riders hogged the top spots in the classification too."
Valverde, "did a good time trial, but he went much stronger in the first half than in the second, and in a short time trial like this one, you're virtually obliged to calculate your strength very carefully." So rather than racing so hard in the fast part, Unzue felt Valverde could have been more consistent throughout the stage, "but it would not have changed very much, two or three seconds gain or loss at most.
"Of course these differences are risibly small in comparison to what kind of gaps are established in the mountains. But after doing well in the time trial, he's got a bit of an advantage on the climbers already and that's a good thing, it helps us all stay calm.”
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- Giro d'Italia 2016 race page
Andrey Amador's strong ride in the prologue saw Unzue confirm that the Costa Rica rider, fourth overall in last year's Giro, will enjoy protected status like Valverde at least until the Chianti time trial, which effectively confirms Amador as Movistar's 'Plan B'.
"We had already seen he was going well in Romandie," [placing 13th in the opening prologue -Ed.] Unzue pointed out. "He has performed very well in the Giro before, his career has always been shaped by this race, and the signs are he's going to do well again."
As Unzue sees it the two most dangerous stages in the first week are the "sixth and the eighth". The first features the 2016 Giro's first summit finish at the second category climb of Roccaraso and second, the stage to Arezzo, runs over gravel roads at the end. "These two days will start to weed out riders for the overall, but above all the first big test will be in Chianti, in the time trial [on stage nine]."
As for rival Mikel Landa (Sky), Unzue argued that the Giro d'Italia's unpredictable nature suits a rider like the Basque down to the ground. Landa tends to race according to his feelings rather than making pre-planned attacks, Unzue pointed out, and the Giro d'Italia offers fertile ground for such a spontaneous style of racing.
"It's a much better race for riders like Mikel who like to improvise. It's not like in the Tour where you rarely see things that aren't pre-scripted. You get the impression in some stages of the Tour that nothing exceptional is ever going to happen, barring crashes and a few minor ripples on the surface.
"The Giro, on the other hand, is a race with a huge question mark permanently hovering over it. A quiet day just isn't conceivable."
The reasons for this innate unpredictability in the Giro d'Italia, according to Unzue, are multiple, but he points out one in particular. "It's the first big stage race of the season, and a fair number of the top teams have very few clear objectives at that point of the year. They are looking at one option or another to get what they want in terms of publicity, and they make-up their strategies as they go along.
"It makes the Giro a hugely anarchic, unpredictable race, and then if you add in a top favourite like [Vincenzo] Nibali (Astana) who is as unpredictable as the Giro itself, that just redoubles the uncertainty." All of which, Unzue argues, suits Landa.
As the most experienced Spanish sports director by a long way Unzue has had numerous top riders on his books and he can easily appreciate when two are similar, even if they are years apart in cycling history. Two years ago as Nairo Quintana headed towards his first Giro d'Italia victory for example, Unzue told Cyclingnews that the Colombian reminded him strongly of Bernard Hinault in terms of his forceful personality and charisma. So what about Landa?
"He reminds me of [former Banesto rider with Unzue and 1988 Tour champion] Pedro Delgado. He's an out-and-out climber. We don't know if he's going to get better with time in the time trials, but what we do know already is that he’s a great rider for the mountains.
"The mountains are where you most improvise in cycling and that’s where he can make a difference, because if you attack on the flat, the odds are almost anybody can chase you down. But if you're away in the mountains, usually it's only your top rivals who can come after you."
What Landa can achieve, Unzue says, has yet to be established, for two reasons. "He's very aggressive as a racer, and above all, at his age we don't know what his real upper limit can be."
Unzue argues that whereas some riders are able to maintain a certain degree of consistency throughout the year - and Valverde certainly fits into that category, Landa does not. Landa, as he puts it, "is one of those riders who often have some ups and downs but when he shines, he really shines brightly.
"He's already shown us some things are within his reach though. He already took third last year in the Giro although to be honest I thought he was the strongest rider in the race.
"That third place overall has given him the sense of security that means he can fight for a great Giro in 2016. He's fresh, recovered totally from his early season health problems and this is really his race, the mountains here in Italy clearly suit him. So we'll see what he can do here."
Unzue in any case, is fielding another top candidate and one with his own, huge, talents as a racer. "Alejandro has surefire consistency. With him, you can always dream of success, sometimes it works, sometimes not, but you can always dream of it."
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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