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Sutherland on working for Valverde at Movistar

Sutherland on working for Valverde at Movistar

For years we’ve watched as the likes of Alejandro Valverde et al from Movistar ply their trade, but what is it like in this inner circle? Rob Arnold talked to Rory Sutherland to find out more…

There’s a familiar sight in the Classics of late-April. It involves one rider who we have seen time and time again plying his trade, winning races, climbing to the top of the Mûr de Huy and throwing a victory salute.

Alejandro Valverde is evergreen. Will his strength ever fade?

Overnight he did it again: won la Flèche Wallonne. Face it, everyone kind of knew he would. It’s his race. He has won it five times since 2006 when he was the first Spaniard to claim the title on a Wednesday afternoon in Belgium.

There have been other winners since then but Valverde is made for the Mûr.

Look at the sequence of photos from Yuzuru Sunada: time passes and the outfits change but the aesthetic is much the same in 2017 as it was 11 years ago.

Valverde in front. The others slumped, defeated.

But who is this guy? He’s so familiar yet so foreign.

Over the years, we’ve come to know Valverde. We watch him race. We nod along as he gives his post-victory statements (and, I at least, have no idea what he’s saying). He certainly appears polite and amicable and happy and, curiously, anything but out of breath.

It’s been a long time since 2003 when he really burst onto the scene. He won two stages of the Vuelta and finished third overall behind Roberto Heras and Isidro Nozal… remember them? After that, he scored a silver medal in the world championships behind Igor Astarloza – yeah, Google him… he did win the rainbow jersey.

We know details about the other elements of Valverde’s career, the nasty bits. ‘ValvPiti’ was his code. And he was not alone in those shenanigans with Eufemiano Fuentes. Eventually he’d serve his time. But he’d return to race his bike.

David Gaudu on the attack: the youngest rider in the 2017 race... but he could hold off the 36-year-old veteran.

David Gaudu on the attack (above): the youngest rider in the 2017 race… but he could hold off the 36-year-old veteran.

At the age of 36 Valverde is still going strong. He turns 37 next Tuesday. We’ve watched him grow up… but who is he?

“Alejandro? Straight as an arrow,” says Rory Sutherland, “the guy loves riding his bike.”

Sutherland is the only Australian to have raced on a team with Valverde. And the 35-year-old (who has also served a suspension all those years ago) is happy to be part of the Movistar armada that quietly goes about its business… leading the likes of Alejandro and Nairo around in races.

Often the Spanish team enjoys success but what’s it like inside that unit?

“There’s no hierarchy in this team… in November in 2014 when I first went to the [Movistar] camp to introduce myself into the team and we sat there at the dinner table, the whole team – all the riders – and the neo pros were throwing bits of rolled up bread at Alejandro and Nairo. And vice-versa.

“There’s no: ‘This guy you can’t talk to…’ There’s no ego.”

[Click the link to listen to Sutherland speak about racing for Movistar.)

“They’re not closed down,” explains Sutherland. “It’s an inner circle.

“I’ve never felt as appreciated as what I have on this team. And that’s an interesting thing to say.

“It takes an effort on my behalf to break the barrier of the language – that is the barrier.

“The Spaniards do not speak English. They don’t. There’s one or two who’ll speak a bit but in terms of getting something out of an interview with the big guys…?” Nah. You’ve got little chance.

There’ll be smiles. And if there’s a translation provided by the race organisers, you never feel like you’re getting the full story.

But Sutherland offers his take on what Valverde is like.

“Alejandro speaks Spanish. Nairo speaks Spanish – nothin’ else! They’re like Australians really, with one language.

“But if you want to get in there…” he considers the statement. And realises the odd reality: “I’m the first Australian in 35 years – probably the longest standing organisation in cycling… the first Australian in the team. And I’m incredibly proud of that because, blowing my own horn, not many people fit into the mould to be able to do that.”

* * * * *

We’ve seen many Back Stage Pass episodes and know a lot about how teams like Orica-Scott tick, but insight into the Movistar clique is more difficult to get. The outfit has been around for a long time, as Sutherland references. There have been many titles: Reynolds, Banesto, Illes Balears, Movistar… (and a few naming iterations in between) but it is consistently good.

The fifth win for Valverde in La Flèche is a reminder that the cycling season is about to change. The Classics are almost done. The Tour de Romandie is on next week. Then it’s time for the Giro d’Italia, the 100th edition.

It’s time for the stage races. And that’s when Movistar is going to start getting headlines. Again.

“The Spanish are incredibly loyal, very family orientated… it’s family first. And that’s what works in the team – and that’s why it works so well.”

Valverde is a veteran. He is still winning races. He’s likely to be amongst the protagonists again in Liège-Bastogne-Liège this weekend. And we’re likely to see Sutherland out there at the front of the bunch setting the tempo.

This is part of cycling. There are leaders and workers and although that tradition may be changing, as Sutherland explains (see link above), there are still elements of the peloton that remain the same – even if we don’t know too much about them.

 

– By Rob Arnold

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