Unzue: We want Landa to become Spanish cycling's standard-bearer

Movistar's long-standing team manager Eusebio Unzue has said he will be setting the bar high for his new marquee signing, Mikel Landa (Team Sky), and that he expects the 27-year-old Basque to become the new standard-bearer for Spanish cycling.

When a country's most promising Grand Tour racer signs for his country's biggest team, one of the key questions fans ask themselves is exactly what the squad and the rider think he will be capable of achieving. And in the case of Landa, Unzue argues, the long-term target has to be to make him Spain's "standard-bearer": in other words, its top racer.

There are obvious caveats to that in the short-term, given teammate Alejandro Valverde - his serious Tour de France crash notwithstanding - is still racking up the victories, and last season, even with the Tour, was Valverde's best. All this at 37, lest we forget.

But, Alberto Contador's retirement means there is more of a gap to be filled for Spain when it comes to Grand Tour contenders, and Unzue feels Landa, at 27, has begun to show much greater consistency in his stage racing. It's time for the bar to be raised for his new signing.

"The best of Landa is yet to come," Unzue told a small group of reporters, including Cyclingnews, at a press conference on Friday. "He's a great rider but the results were patchier up until 2017, when something clicked, something changed. That greater consistency and his better time trialling, as he's shown throughout the year, is important. Plus he's at the ideal age to go for Grand Tours."

There is no question of Landa usurping Valverde's position either in the team or in Spanish cycling. For Unzue, Landa forms part more of a mid-to-long term project. "Alejandro seems to be inexhaustible, but we don't actually know how long for. We've got a lot of young riders coming up, too, in the squad. So Mikel is the man who has to become the standard-bearer for Spanish cycling in the future."

At the same time, Unzue knows that he, as a manager, will be facing an intriguing - and perhaps very challenging - scenario in 2018: getting the best out of three tried-and-tested leaders in the same squad. On the plus side, handling co-leaders is a situation with which he is extremely familiar: from Miguel Indurain and Pedro Delgado in the early 1990s through to Oscar Pereiro and Valverde in the noughties to Nairo Quintana and Valverde in recent years.

Successfully navigating co-leadership

As is logical in a team that boasts nearly four decades of cycling history, there have been times when rather than collaborating, a power struggle has broken out between their GC leaders. The most famous case was the 1998 Vuelta a España, when Jose María Jiménez, a hugely talented but erratic climber, and Banesto teammate Abraham Olano, who was leader of the race and went on to win it, fell out very publicly. Overall, when it comes to the art of managing different leaders under the same roof, Movistar and its predecessors Banesto and Reynolds have had far more success than failure.

Asked directly how he planned to fit the pieces of the 2018 Movistar leadership jigsaw together, Unzue played it diplomatically. "The season is very long, and there are lots of very important objectives within that. So, we're lucky to have three leaders because this way, if something goes wrong, we still have our bases covered. That makes them more secure, too."

Nor does he see Quintana's pointed re-assertion of his status as team leader in the weeks before the arrival of Landa to be unexpected. "It's normal, it's what the situation is. How could Nairo not think he's the leader of this team if he has had five straight years in which he's taken at least one Grand Tour podium every season?

"But at the same time, what our friend Mikel has said is logical. After these last three years, of course he's going to think he's got the right to lead. We're all convinced of that. Mikel has added a level of consistency to the quality we all knew he had.

"He had a spectacular Giro in 2015, then things went a bit awry in 2016, but in 2017 he's been at a great level and consolidated what came before. It was only bad luck in the Giro that took him out of the GC picture and then in the Tour” - where Landa was working for Chris Froome - “there were the circumstances we all know about.

"Mikel is one of those seven or eight riders who is able to win a Grand Tour right now, when the Nibalis, Arus, the French riders, Dumoulin, Froome, Nairo and Mikel are all ready to win a Grand Tour. But top of the list is Froome, of course.

"So for Mikel, what racing alongside Nairo will gain him is further consolidation. For Nairo, too, sometimes being able to share responsibility will be good."

Furthermore, as Unzue says, there have been races when his team has begun with one leader, and ended up with another winning the Tour.

"But don't start saying that they can't stand each other, because it's not true," Unzue said. "Given what they've done up to now, it's only logical that they wanted to make their own position clear. But you'll see that with time, they'll end up united and working together and it'll be the best thing that could happen to both of them."

Unzue also denied that his team's racing approach was too conservative for a rider as unpredictable as Landa.

"We've always varied our approach depending on the objective. In the Ardennes Classics, for example, we know perfectly well how to build our team around one rider [Valverde] and control the race with that in mind. And when we have Mikel in a race, we'll adapt our approach to his - by attacking."

There is the third pillar of Movistar's triumvirate to consider, Valverde, with his own high level of Grand Tour success - including a Vuelta a España win, in 2009 - as well as victories across the board. "Both of them can fall back on the experience and the cast-iron guarantees only having a third leader of the calibre of Alejandro can offer. Mikel and Nairo are excellent racers, but they're both still young and they've still got a lot to learn."

With the team amassing success in the Giro, Vuelta, week-long stage races, Classics and the Hour Record in recent years, Unzue believes that it is only logical, too, that he should consider sending all three of his top riders to the Tour de France to take on Froome and the other contenders. But, as befits a team with so many top names, making the Giro d'Italia or Vuelta a top objective is also in the cards. "Nothing is ruled out," Unzue says, categorically. And come December, and the team presentation, a more definite program will be provided - for all three Movistar leaders.

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