What a difference a year makes. In the first week of the 2019 Vuelta a España, Marc Soler violently waved his arm in the air in a notorious act of public protest against his team direceurs, who’d called him back for general classification leader Nairo Quintana when he was alone out front with 3km to go.
Wednesday on stage 2 of the 2020 Vuelta a España, Soler let rip with another swing of the arm, but this time it was on the finish line, and this time it was in celebration.
The Spaniard, who won the Tour de l’Avenir in 2015, finally had a maiden Grand Tour stage victory and Movistar finally had their first win since the start of February.
“I’m very happy. We were very motivated for racing on home turf,” Soler said, referring to the fact the stage started in Pamplona where the team and their sponsors are based.
“It’s my first Grand Tour stage win and I’m very happy about that. Now, we have the reward for all our efforts during such a complicated year, so thank you to the whole team and everyone who has supported us.”
Soler and his teammates used their local knowledge to good effect, stretching the field to breaking point in the exposed, windy section over the top of the Puerto de Urbasa with 60km to go, before dominating the final climb of the Alto de San Miguel.
Soler, who’d done much of the work for Enric Mas and Alejandro Valverde, was actually dropped near the top but managed to return on the descent to the line. No sooner had he done so than he ripped straight off the front of the select group of favourites, never to be seen again.
“We reconned this stage at the weekend, so we knew the terrain, and we had the idea of taking it up on the Urbasa. On the final climb, Carlos [Verona] set a great tempo and then I took it up, and although I paid the price near the top, there was a pause on the descent and I came back and used my higher speed to go past without anyone being able to get on my wheel,” he explained.
“I wanted to get back in to work for Enric and Alejandro but, going twice as fast as that group, I didn’t slow down, carried on, and from their it was head down to the line.”
While Soler said he was carrying double the speed, Mas, who moved up to fifth overall, saw it as more like triple.
“When he went past, I thought it was a motorbike,” said the Spaniard. “He was going at triple the speed, and when we saw that in three seconds he took 50 metres, he had to keep going. He really deserves this.”
‘We lacked confidence’
As for Movistar as a whole, it’s not quite a stellar year, but what a difference nine months makes. That’s how long it’s been since the team last tasted victory, through Soler himself at the season-opening Challenge Mallorca series.
As Mas said in Lekunberri: “We needed that victory.”
It has been a year of change for the Spanish WorldTour squad, with Nairo Quintana, Mikel Landa, Richard Carapaz, and Andrey Amador all heading for the exit at the end of 2019. Amid a blanket ban on dealings with the rider agent Giuseppe Acquadro – resulting from the messy Carapaz and Amador departures – their main acquisitions in the transfer market were neo-pros, resulting in a young squad that will take time to bed in. At the same time, age seems to have been catching up with their tailsman of so many years, Alejandro Valverde, who is now 40 and hasn’t won since last year’s Vuelta.
At the Tour de France, Valverde was quiet. While that was initially the case for Mas, the 25-year-old turned things round as the race went on and quietly climbed to fifth overall by Paris.
Despite a mixed bag on the opening day of the Vuelta – when Mas stayed with the favourites but Valverde and Soler lost a little ground – Movistar came out with a show of strength and unity in their home region on Wednesday. Apart from a speculative attack from Carapaz ahead of the final climb and a brief acceleration from Sepp Kuss near the top, they dictated proceedings for much of the day and almost all the finale.
“If we analyse the year, we’ve lacked confidence,” Mas admitted. “We started well in Mallorca but after that, little by little, due to things we can’t put our fingers on, the results dried up.
“At the Tour de France, we regained a little confidence and here we’re taking back the rest of what was lacking.”