There was a time when Team Movistar was seen as one of the most traditional-minded squads in the WorldTour, but are those days behind 'The Blues' for good?
Certainly, don't be surprised if in 2022 it seems Spain’s only WorldTour team is thinking much more outside the stage-racing-shaped box which has been their comfort zone for decades, let alone a few seasons.
The changes to effect that switch of strategy had already started inside the team over a year ago, Movistar Head of Performance Patxi Vila tells Cyclingnews. It’s just that in that time they hadn’t been overly obvious to the outside world.
For example, the team already has current aims at making more inroads in the cobbled Classics, a few years back a near no-go zone for Movistar. On top of that, they’re already working on developing talented young riders from countries as left-field – in cycling terms – as Brazil, and indeed have already got the Puerto Rico national champion, Abner González, on their books.
These policies will all be stepped up in 2022, Vila says. On top of which, they'll be combining all of the above with one of Movistar’s most enduring philosophies: that Rome wasn’t built in a day – and cycling success doesn’t always happen overnight.
“This is a 42-year-old team, that’s sometimes been more successful, sometimes less. But either way we are currently in a process of change,” says Vila.
“We want to make the squad more international, with a broader number of different types of riders and profiles. But while these riders can give the team a more modern feel, similarly they have to adapt a little to our techniques and practices as a squad as well. And that all takes time.”
Giving Movistar a more international feel, he says, is something that “I’ve wanted to bring to the team, as I spent a lot of my career in non-Spanish squads, both as a rider and then in management.”
After studying at university, Vila gained the opportunity to turn pro relatively late, at 26, with a former incarnation of the Movistar team, iBanesto.com, in 2001 before moving onto Lampre in 2003. Then after retiring, he spent a lengthy spell with Tinkoff and Bora-Hansgrohe in management before moving back to Movistar in 2020 as Head of Performance.
Looking back at the team’s season, he says, “I think 2021 has been a positive year for us. We’ve confirmed Enric Mas as a top racer in Grand Tours and then young riders we signed a couple of years ago like Matteo Jorgensen [American was eighth in Paris-Nice], Johan Jacobs and Abner Gonzalez: they are all progressing nicely.
“We also opted to sign riders who are relatively young, not extremely young like some other teams have done. And I think in this coming year, with another little step forwards, the project we’ve got in place will show some results from this change of philosophy.”
Some things, though, are much more set in stone at Movistar. As Vila points out, Abarca Sports, the company that has owned the Movistar team right back from when it was sponsored by aluminium sheeting company, Reynolds, in the early 1980s, has always believed “to take things slowly and calmly. As [head manager] Eusebio Unzué sees it, the best stew gets cooked when you heat it over a slow flame. Not when you bung it in a microwave.”
It’s seemingly in keeping with that ‘step-by-step’ approach that Movistar has not made any huge signings for 2022, preferring mainly to strengthen the ‘young international’ feel of the team with up-and-coming riders. These include names like Germany’s talented all-rounder Max Kanter (Team DSM) and the 20-year-old Brazilian, neo-pro Vinicius Rangel, ninth in the recent U23 World Championship, and US time trial specialist Will Barta (EF Education-Nippo), who was just announced this Wednesday.
“For various reasons, Ivan has yet to show all he’s capable of doing so he’s a bit of an incognito. But Alex has already had a big breakthrough. We think he’s going to have a lot to say in the Classics," he said.
"As for Gorka, he can play a team captain role’s which we’ve been lacking a little bit in certain races. When you’ve got an overlapping race program, then even two riders who are hugely experienced in that role like Jose Joaquin Rojas and Imanol Erviti sometimes need more support to maintain communication between the guys on the road and the management behind.”
As for the team’s already established leaders like Valverde, the veteran racer’s objectives are going to be “set by himself,” Vila says.
“He is team’s flagship rider. He’s an example. His only aim, at 42 next year, will be to act as a mirror in which the younger racers can appreciate his fighting spirit, his meticulous professionalism and his delight in racing. Whatever he gets on the sporting front is a bonus.”
Mas, meanwhile, has progressed considerably in 2021, Vila argues, partly thanks to his podium position in the Vuelta a España. But it's also partly thanks to “the way he’s stronger now at handling rivals’ attacks, like he did in Valdepeñas de Jaén. He had that ability in the past, and now it’s back."
“I alway ask three things from my riders: confidence, commitment and respect. On all of those fronts Enric is on the right road. With that the results will come.”
Classics and a classic exit
At the same time, Vila argues, when it comes to the cobbled Classics Movistar needs to take a sharper focus than it currently does.
A few years back team had begun to venture into cobbled one-day racing by signing northern Classics racers like Belgian specialist Jürgen Roelandts and giving Ivan García Cortina a chance to prove himself last season. There was even some crossover when Alejandro Valverde made his debut in the Tour of Flanders in 2019 at 37, and finished in the top 10 as well.
But Roelandts retired and Valverde never returned to Flanders, so it’s perhaps not surprising that Vila’s plan is, as he puts it, “for Movistar to dedicate the Northern Classics much more time and energy.”
Movistar’s boosted interest in one-day racing comes after a season in which they took 15 victories, the highlights being Miguel Ángel López’ victory in the toughest stage of the Vuelta a España and the second place overall in Santiago de Compostela for Enric Mas.
But one of the toughest moments for Movistar this season also came in the Vuelta, when López staged a dramatic exit mid-stage from the race. Then, following a mutual agreement, he quit Movistar itself.
“On a personal level, I’d say that it’s opened up my eyes, in situations which I saw unfold right in front of me,” Vila, who was on the Vuelta and tried to persuade López to rejoin the race as he stood on the road-side, now reflects.
“Obviously everybody’s character forms part of what happens in these situations. But what I have taken away from what happened, six weeks on, is that it makes me feel very sorry, because Miguel Ángel is a very good person and a very good racer But he was facing a situation that he didn’t know how to resolve.
“It's nothing more than that, something that can happen to all of us. It was very complicated to find a solution to what happened for both sides. This [his leaving the team] is the best for everybody because it would have been very difficult for us to resolve the situation in a positive way if he had stayed. We’ve all learned from this, both the rider and the team.”
Part of the shake up in Movistar for next year is not only to do with the loss of López and Marc Soler, with the former Paris-Nice winner heading to UAE Team Emirates. Longstanding sports director and former Banesto racer José Luis Arrieta’s departure from the squad, already reported in Spanish sports daily AS, was confirmed by Vila to Cyclingnews.
However, Vila did not provide more details as to why Arrieta, a sports director with the team since 2011 and 13 years a pro racer in the squad before that, was leaving.
Looking at the team itself, Vila recognised that having a sponsor in Movistar in place until 2023, provides certain room for manoeuvre to try and keep the squad improving.
“Finding backers is never easy, and Movistar’s decision to stay with us up to a twelfth year in the sport is a sign of trust;” he argued.
“Now we have to pay them back for putting their trust in us, with results and the right attitude.”
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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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