Movistar Team has built a reputation on winning the most prestigious races in professional cycling, but its unpublicised role as a hot house for young talent is about to be thrust into the spotlight at the 2017 La Vuelta España.
With Nairo Quintana, the winner of last year’s Vuelta, resting after the exertions of the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France, and Alejandro Valverde recovering from a knee injury sustained at the Tour, Movistar Team manager Eusébio Unzué has seized the opportunity to roll out his young guns.
“Each of the bespoke garments Movistar Team will wear at La Vuelta had been handmade in Scotland before the squad competing at Le Tour had crossed the finish line in Paris...”
Five of the nine riders selected by Unzué for this 72nd edition of La Vuelta are aged 26 or under. Four will make their Grand Tour debut. Three are products of the Navarran ‘talent factory’ that is Team Lizarte. Two are winners of the Tour de l’Avenir. One is the first Ecuadorian to ride in cycling’s elite UCI WorldTour.
For Brand Director Pamela Barclay, Movistar Team’s line-up for La Vuelta echoes Endura’s own investment in youthful talent. Its vast facility on the outskirts of Edinburgh contains its fair share of bright young things, who add enthusiasm and a youthful disregard for established convention to the corporate mix.
“Every competitive organisation, whether a commercial enterprise or a professional cycling team, is in a battle to win the brightest young talents available. Endura and Movistar Team are no different.
“In Livingston, we’re proud to have such a talented crop of young people on board; our marketing and product development teams especially are filled with passionate young people who help to drive our business forward.
“Eusébio’s embrace of young talent for Movistar Team’s ‘home’ Grand Tour is to be applauded. Representing the team of the defending champion will bring pressure, but we’re confident that the young men wearing the name Endura will rise to the occasion.”
Three weeks of intense competition will tell. Nearly 3,300km of racing lies ahead, including five forays into the high mountains and two timed tests. No weakness will go undiscovered. The young men of Movistar Team, and the wise heads who guide them, must be at their very best to compete.
Richard Carapaz, the first Ecuadorian to ride in cycling’s elite UCI WorldTour, has made a fine start to life as a professional. The 24-year-old impressed Euebio Unzué so much in 2016, when he joined the team last July as a trainee, that he rewarded him with a full contract until 2018. Nothing Carapaz has done this season is likely to have caused his boss a moment’s regret.
Carapaz has made himself a fixture in the youth classification of professional cycling’s biggest races, finishing in the top 10 at WorldTour events like the Tour de Romandie and the Critérium du Dauphiné, and even winning the white jersey competition at the Route du Sud.
“Carapaz says his ultimate ambition is to win the Giro d’Italia. An eye-catching performance at La Vuelta would give him confidence to pursue his career goal...”
Moreover, he has troubled the general classification, too - a fine achievement for such a young and comparatively inexperienced rider. His victory in the youth classification at the Route du Sud was almost a sideshow. By finishing second overall in a race won in the previous season by his vastly more accomplished team-mate Nairo Quintana, Carapaz continued a fine ‘tradition’ in the French Midi for Movistar Team.
Nor was this an isolated appearance in the upper reaches of the general classification. Carapaz finished fourth overall at the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon and sixth at the Vuelta Madrid. At WorldTour level, he has not been outclassed, and served his team with distinction both in Romandie and at the Dauphiné.
Carapaz says his ultimate ambition is to win the Giro d’Italia, and surely an eye-catching performance at La Vuelta would give him confidence to pursue his career goal. In Spain, he will be pitted against the very best, and even to finish among them will be an achievement. If we have learned anything about Carapaz in his short career however it is that he does not duck challenges. He will strike out at La Vuelta, both for Ecuador and for Movistar Team, without fear.
Marc Soler has such potential that he is among Movistar Team’s most highly prized assets. Such is the 23 year-old’s talent that at times his riding seems effortless, even if he has much to learn and stamina to be gained. The route to both lies in the raw accumulation of racing miles. There are no short cuts in professional cycling.
By finishing third overall at the Volta a Catalunya in March, behind his victorious team-mate Valverde and Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), a multiple Grand Tour winner, Soler offered a tantalising glimpse of his ultimate potential.
“The glimpses Soler has offered of his talent have been tantalising. A similar show of panache at a Grand Tour would have still greater significance...”
An earlier sign came in his dogged pursuit of Contador on the Cote d’Azur, on an exhilarating final stage of Paris-Nice, with Contador at his explosive best. Soler dodged bullets when El Pistolero fired his best shots, losing contact with his decorated compatriot only in the final kilometres.
While Spring will be a campaign the young Catalan will wish to forget, photographer Sean Hardy offers an insight into Soler’s mindset. Hardy was in the Movistar Team car at Liège-Bastogne-Liège when Soler climbed in, abandoning the greatest race of Ardennes Week, having already failed to finish the Amstel Gold Race and La Flèche Wallonne.
The young rider might have been forgiven for feeling disconsolate; for hiding away in the back of the car. Instead, after a few minutes recovery, following the race on the dashboard television, he dressed himself in leggings and long-sleeved jersey and insisted upon riding back to the hotel.
What might Soler achieve at La Vuelta? It is important not to burden him with expectation. He has never ridden a Grand Tour. The step up to a three-week race will be considerable; the learning curve as steep as an Asturian climb. Still, he will be disappointed if he does not at least show himself.
The brief displays Soler has given of his talent have whetted the appetite. A similar show of panache at a Grand Tour would have greater significance. Will the biggest stage he has yet encountered inspire his biggest performance? Do not look away.
Neo-pro Jorge Arcas is a fine fit for the youthful profile of Movistar Team’s line up for La Vuelta. The 25 year-old has already racked up 52 race days and nearly 7,500km this season, starting his season in January at Challenge Mallorca and pursuing a diverse campaign that has taken him from the cobbles of Flanders and the Roubaix pavé to the soaring climbs of the Dauphiné.
Arcas is a ‘diesel’, a 68kg powerhouse, willing and able to shoulder the burden of long kilometres on the front of the peloton. He will serve as flatland bodyguard to diminutive climbing talents like Carapaz, Carlos Betancur, and Dani Moreno. When the mountains of Andorra and Granada rise before him, he will dig deep, knowing that his team-mates will need him in the days that follow, when the race returns to flatter roads.
“Five of the nine riders selected for La Vuelta are aged 26 or under. Four will make their Grand Tour debut...”
Like Arcas, Antonio Pedrero is a product of the Lizarte ‘talent factory’; a Navarran development team of which Soler is also a graduate. Pedrero, a pure climber, will relish La Vuelta’s five mountain stages, having put in the hard yards for his team-mates on the front of the peloton so often.
La Vuelta will represent Pedrero’s first Grand Tour and his most demanding challenge yet. In a squad almost designed to showcase the youthful talent at Movistar Team, the 25 year-old will seek to justify his selection alongside the young guns with whom he has already spent so much of his career.
Rubén Fernández is a rider who has learned his trade the old fashioned way. Despite being sufficiently gifted to have won the Tour de l’Avenir, an unfailing barometer of developing talent, he has worked his way up through the professional ranks, beginning his senior career in cycling’s second tier.
Now in his sixth season as a professional, despite being aged only 26, he has already completed two Grand Tours, and last year even wore the leader’s jersey at La Vuelta for a stage, while riding in the service of team-mate and eventual winner Nairo Quintana.
Carlos Betancur’s career has reignited at Movistar Team. At La Vuelta, he has a rare opportunity to fulfil his potential, for make no mistake, Betancur has the natural ability to win a Grand Tour.
The Colombian, now 27 and approaching his peak years, has responded to the management of Eusebio Unzué. This season, he has begun to show the innate class that made him a Paris-Nice winner at the age of 24.
“Betancur is entitled to play his cards close to his chest. The road, as he acknowledges, will have the final say...”
Given the success of his compatriots, notably that of Nairo Quintana, Betancur has to some degree become the 'forgotten' Colombian. La Vuelta provides an unrivalled opportunity to remind the world that the peloton contains another supremely talented escarabajo.
Betancur’s service to Movistar Team has been two-fold. In the Spring Classics, he provided invaluable service to Alejandro Valverde, finishing all three of the Ardennes Classics in a week that saw El Bala net two of the biggest prizes in the sport: La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Back in Limburg for the opening race of the new Hammer Series, Betancur seized his own chance to shine, winning the ‘Hammer Climb’, a one-day race in Valls, held over 11 laps of a 7km circuit. The Colombian led over the crest of the brutal Cauberg climb on laps three and four, banking valuable points for Movistar Team, before breaking clear on the final ascent for a fine solo win.
Betancur placed all of his considerable talent at the service of Nairo Quintana at the Tour de France, nursing his team leader and compatriot through some difficult moments, and riding strongly enough to finish in the top 20 in his first attempt at La Grande Boucle.
Now, at La Vuelta, he will have every opportunity to deliver the most significant performance of his career to date. By his own admission, he has worked hard at Movistar Team’s pre-Vuelta altitude camp, even if he is unprepared to reveal the extent of his form. No matter. The Colombian is entitled to play his cards close to his chest. The road, as he acknowledges, will have the final say.
JJ Rojas is a Movistar Team archetype and well qualified to guide such a young squad at what will be the biggest engagement in the careers of many of them. Supremely versatile, vastly experienced, and twice the Spanish national champion (representing Movistar Team on both occasions) “Rojillas” will understand precisely the demands of his home Grand Tour.
“Rojas understands better than most that La Vuelta’s demands are unflinching. Last year, he was involved in a sickening collision on stage 20 that broke his tibia and fibula...”
He knows that La Vuelta’s demands are unflinching. Last year, Rojas was involved in a sickening collision on stage 20: one that broke both his tibia and fibula. His recovery and subsequent return to training and racing will have provided a salutary lesson to his young team-mates on the necessity of getting back on the bike.
Rojas has started 12 Grand Tours, and has already finished the Giro d’Italia this season, where he rode in support of Nairo Quintana. In Nîmes, when he opens his third engagement with La Vuelta, he will know exactly the scale of the challenge that lies ahead over the next three weeks. Unzué will be glad to have such a wise head in the ranks.
Dani Moreno is almost the quintessential Movistar Team rider; the only surprise is that he joined Eusebio Unzué’s squad so late in his career. Now 35, he is a vastly experienced campaigner, having completed each of the 17 Grand Tours he has started. Moreno has finished in the top 10 at La Vuelta on three occasions, and has won three stages.
It’s hard to imagine a rider better placed to provide a calming word to the likes of Carapaz or Soler when the heat of battle becomes intense. Moreno has proved an able helpmeet to the very best and indeed was a valuable ally this Spring to Valverde, during El Bala’s highly successful Ardennes campaign.
“Youth is not the only story of Movistar Team’s selection. There are wise heads too who will offer words of experience...”
Moreno will not allow opportunity to pass him by, as he proved by winning the 2013 La Flèche Wallonne, but he has built a reputation as chief lieutenant. Betancur, Carapaz and Soler can count themselves fortunate to have such a wise and selfless rider in Movistar Team’s selection for La Vuelta.
Nelson Oliveira is a class act. A Grand Tour stage winner and a time-trialist with top 10 finishes at world championships and Olympic Games, the Portugese will be a valuable asset to Movistar Team at this year’s Vuelta, for his skill and his experience.
Aged 28, and a professional for eight years, he has finished all seven of the Grand Tours he has started. This will be his third Vuelta, having won stage 13 on his last appearance two years ago.
A team time-trial on the opening stage in Nîmes will give Oliveira an early opportunity to show his pedigree while serving his team-mates. In a squad selection laden with climbing talent, the presence of a four-time national time-trial champion could prove invaluable.
Oliveira will receive his own chance to shine on the stage 16 test, to be held over the classic 25-mile distance. In the mountains, he will do his best to shepherd the team’s specialist climbers until the road becomes so vertiginous that the diminutive forms of Betancur and Carapaz can explode.
The phrase ‘strength in depth’ is typically associated with football teams. But with professional cycling increasingly ‘a squad game’, to use another footballing cliché, Movistar Team has provided further evidence of its ‘super club’ status. By selecting a host of young riders, it has provided evidence for the rich variety of talent, both developing and established, that is required to become the world’s number one team.
“Movistar Team’s understated blue garments belie a technical excellence born of bespoke manufacture and F1 technology...”
But youth is not the only story of Movistar Team’s Vuelta team selection. There is serendipity in the presence of another vastly talented Colombian, and in a time-trial specialist who will carry the squad’s reputation for excellence against the watch.
Then there are the wise heads - national champions and Ardennes Classics winners among them - who will offer words of experience to those explosive young talents so desperate to set the race alight.
Each of the elegant navy garments that Movistar Team's rising stars and established contenders will wear at La Vuelta had been handmade in Scotland before the Tour had finished. The understated blue belies a technical excellence born of bespoke manufacture, and discrete technologies developed in the none-more-discrete environment of Drag2Zero’s facility at the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 wind tunnel in Northamptonshire.
Movistar Team’s Vuelta squad is a formidable cast, even in the absence of its two ‘A-list’ stars. The household names of tomorrow will gain three weeks of screen time from Friday August 19 to Sunday September 10, 2017. La Vuelta promises many ‘where were you’ moments in the weeks ahead, as Movistar Team’s bright young things take centre stage. Be sure to watch.