Unzue: You can't write off Nairo Quintana

Movistar team manager Eusebio Unzué has recognised that 2018 has been a difficult season for Spain's only WorldTour squad, but insisted that "apart from in the Grand Tours, the team have raced well".

In terms of wins, Movistar have had four fewer victories than in 2017, dropping from 31 to 27. Alejandro Valverde's World Championships victory - albeit with the Spanish national squad - has, however, helped considerably to put a shine on the year.

As Unzué put it, "it kind of saved the season for us."

On another plus side, there was a big win in Paris-Nice for Marc Soler and a repeat victory in the Volta a Catalunya with Valverde. His failure to win two races he has dominated in recent years, Liège-Bastogne-Liège or Flèche Wallonne this spring, was another setback. But as Valverde himself pointed out, those defeats have to be placed in the context of his comeback from a bad injury last July and, having trained very hard over the winter to regain top condition, he acknowledged that "by the end of April I was beginning to come up short".

2018 was the first time since 2011 that Movistar have failed to make it onto a single Grand Tour podium. Much of the media criticism for that under-achievement fell onto the shoulders of Nairo Quintana, who was top of the team's three GC leaders in the Tour de France but crashed and finished 10th, then was 8th in the Vuelta after ceding leadership to fifth-placed Valverde.

Unzué nonetheless insisted in a team meeting in Navarre on Friday that his confidence in the Colombian remains intact for 2019.

"Up to a point, Valverde has saved the season with his world title but, apart from in the Grand Tours, the team has been good," Unzué insisted. "Amongst other results, we should remember Carapaz's fourth place in the Giro and Marc Soler's great win in Paris-Nice.

"Then in the Tour, we got through the first week well but Mikel's crash prevented him from performing at his best, and Nairo wasn't able to open up any gaps in his natural terrain."

Even Quintana's Pyrenean stage win, Unzué reasoned had been captured thanks to his "strength of character" and determination to show himself, rather than top form.

"Even if his year hasn't been as good as other ones, we still trust he will do well in the future. He's always a favourite in all the races, his rivals respect him, even if some say he's the top name for the 2019 Tour as a part of some kind of strategy. We can't write him off."

Chris Froome name-checked Quintana as a favourite for the mountains of the Tour during the race's presentation on Thursday, because of the multiple high-altitude stages.

Unzué half-dismissed Quintana's argument that he had performed poorly because of overtraining, saying: "I hope it was that, as he says, that way we'd know the reason, which I don't right now."

He nonetheless confirmed that Quintana's big objective for 2019 would be the Tour, whilst he all but gave the nod to Mikel Landa's possible targeting of both the Giro and the Tour, saying: "he could handle both perfectly well.

"This year should have been the one when Mikel consolidated his performances, a year in which he could convince himself that he could win a Grand Tour. Next year, we'll see a different kind of Mikel Landa."

Landa will certainly not be lacking in opportunities next July, Unzué agreed. "Next year's Tour is more attractive for climbers, with what little time trialling there is well before the mountain stages, so anything can happen and the race won't be shut down until the last day."

However, he was cautious about Movistar's chances of beating Chris Froome or Team Sky, saying "the Froome 'era' has existed not because of money but through his innate qualities as a racer, although his rivals in the peloton have been his teammates and that's a question of contracts.

"Beating him is almost impossible, he's never lacking at least one teammate by his side," Unzué told news agency EFE. "Having those riders with him gives him real security. Winning one Tour is difficult, but it's even tougher to win two. Having that money means he can surround himself with top-class riders."

As for Movistar's own in-house champion, Unzué said he saw no sign yet of Alejandro Valverde ending his career yet.

"He's addicted to racing, and when he's racing at the level he does until he stops thinking he can win, he'll go on racing. Provided there aren't any issues with injuries, we'll have Alejandro with us for quite some time to come."

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Alasdair Fotheringham

Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, 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. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The IndependentThe GuardianProCycling, The Express and Reuters.