Spanish cycling is still waiting for the next generation

At the start of the last Tour de France in Copenhagen, at the time of the presentation of the teams, the Dane Jonas Vingegaard had largely won the applause meter. We bet that at the start of the Tour of Spain, this Friday August 19, on the podium where the entrants will parade, it is Alejandro Valverde who will be the most massively greeted. For completely different reasons: the future belongs to the first, while the second is the symbol of a lost past.

At 42, Alejandro Valverde takes advantage of this Vuelta to say goodbye to his audience. The meeting had already been set last year, but the 2018 world champion had fallen from the 7e step, and had to give up, broken collarbone. Such an exit was unthinkable for the Spanish giant. Hence this last lap this year. The winner of the event in 2009 obviously hopes for a last spark. But anyway, the Murcian, who holds the record for the number of rankings in the first ten places of a Grand Tour (20 times), “will be missed by Spanish cycling”, as 1980s rider Marino Lejarreta pointed out when honoring the champion at the San Sebastian Classic on July 30.

A ten-year-old fireworks display

Because Alejandro Valverde is the last representative of this golden generation which reigned over the peloton for a decade, from the mid-2000s. The good old days of the “club of five” at the top of the charts, with Valverde alongside, above the lot, Alberto Contador and his seven Grand Tours on the clock (the Tour de France 2007 and 2009, the Giro 2008 and 2015 and the Vuelta 2008, 2012 and 2014), but also Roberto Heras (four Vueltas won), Carlos Sastre and Oscar Pereiro, the last two having also won the Grande Boucle, respectively in 2008 and 2006. If we add over the same period the firecrackers lit by the Catalan Joaquim Rodriguez (14 Grand Tours stages removed) and the Oscar Freire (11 successes and the green jersey on the 2008 Tour), we understand the Spanish enthusiasm on the roadside then.

But now for a few years, the Spanish flag has been at half mast. In 2021, he has not been hoisted once in the Vuelta. A first since 1996. How to win, in fact, when the number of candidates is dwindling? On the last Tour de France, there were only nine Spanish participants. Such misery had not been pointed out since 1972! On the brave all the same at the start, hopes rested on Marc Soler, 28, winner of Paris-Nice 2018, which was not nothing, or Enric Mas (27), second in the Vuelta 2018 and 2021 all likewise. The ace. The first gave up, ill, during the 16e stage. The second before the 19th, caught up with the Covid-19.

A generation gap

Blame it on bad luck? Rather to a generational hole that is more and more a gaping abyss. It must be said that Spain looks gray with only one team out of the 18 that make up the international elite: Movistar, the formation of Valverde. Of its 29 members, only 17 Spaniards. Difficult, in these conditions, to bring the young shoots to the highest level.

This year, the organizers of the Vuelta have requested an exemption from the international federation (UCI) to enlarge the peloton (from 176 to 184 riders) and thus be able to invite three Spanish second division teams. Teams still quite young, like the Navarrese Kern Pharma, the youngest, dismissed only in 2021 and which discovers the Vuelta this year.

Expensive places

The Basque formation Euskaltel-Euskadi, disappeared in 2013 and rebuilt in 2018, is in full reconstruction. Only Burgos-BH can boast a little bottle and a reputation as a combative team, for the fifth time in the Tour of Spain and with a stage victory in 2019. But it too sacrifices to the ambient internationalization, with 14 Spaniards out of its 20 riders.

Opportunities are therefore rare and places are expensive. Literally. In July, the Madrid site El Confidencial created a mini-earthquake across the Pyrenees by revealing the practices in progress in many “small” teams, access routes to professionalism: making riders pay to integrate them. A drift already pointed out in the mid-2010s in Italy and which, to say the least, undermines the popular tradition of cycling. A tradition which, as elsewhere, is eroding. Unless a new Valverde hatches. The little Spanish queen is still waiting for her savior.


Nairo Quintana, absent at the last minute

On the eve of the launch of the Vuelta, the Colombian Nairo Quintana announced Thursday August 18 that he would not take the start of the race, of which he was one of the men expected with the three-time Slovenian title holder Primoz Roglic and the Belgian Remco Evenepoel. A day earlier, the climber from the French team Arkéa-Samsic was disqualified from the last Tour de France, in which he had taken 6th place. The International Cycling Union justified its decision by revealing that the 32-year-old rider had tested positive for tramadol, an analgesic banned in racing but which is not considered doping. Since this is a first offence, Nairo Quintana remains cleared to race competitively. The winner of the Vuelta 2016 can appeal within ten days.


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