Movistar Women Team Talk: Stepping into the post-Van Vleuten era

With the team's big leader off to retirement, expectations rest on the young core to account for some of the wins that are now out the door

Clock19:00, Friday 8th December 2023
Movistar women 2024 Team Talk

© Sprint Cycling Agency

The women of Movistar 2024 Team Talk

The turning of the seasons marks an important juncture for the Movistar women’s team. Annemiek van Vleuten, the rider who has spearheaded the team’s rise in recent years, is hanging up her wheels, and although she was only there for three years, it does feel like the end of an era. It certainly feels like the start of a new one, and there’s something of a question mark over Movistar’s position among the established order.

Formed in 2018, the team was, in its early days, made up almost exclusively of Spanish riders, and success was limited. In 2020, however, they ascended to the WorldTour, and in 2021 they signed Van Vleuten and that changed everything.

Having won three races outside of national championships between 2018 and 2020, that figure rose to 19 when Van Vleuten came along. She was not solely responsible for the success, as the team internationalised and grew in quality, but she was the beating heart of the team, winning 29 races over three years, including the Tour de France Femmes, two editions of the Giro d’Italia Donne, and three editions of the Vuelta, plus the Tour of Flanders, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and a world title.

Put simply, she will leave a gaping hole in Movistar’s team, and it’s not hyperbolic to say she’s irreplaceable – at least with the options on this current transfer market. The existential question for Movistar on this changing of the eras, is to what extent the past three years were a one-woman show, and to what extent the team as a whole were able to grow in her slipstream.

GCN’s 2023 review

Movistar had a strong season, placing fifth in the UCI team rankings, as they did in 2022, and breaking the 20-win barrier for a third year in a row.

What's more, they did so despite Van Vleuten being unable to reach the same heights as the previous campaigns. She won the Giro and the Vuelta, so it was a great season by most standards, but by her own lofty standards there was more than a hint of decline.

Whereas she’d been untouchable in 2022, Van Vleuten looked vulnerable, and certainly less consistent. She’d been the top-ranked rider in the world for the past three years but ended 2023 in fifth place. Most strikingly, she was usurped by her main rival of last year, Demi Vollering, who won the Tour de France and the Ardennes treble. Van Vleuten, meanwhile, was off-colour in the Spring and slumped to fourth at the Tour, and her Vuelta victory came with the caveat of Vollering’s controversial toilet stop.

Most poignantly, the sight of her slipping off the podium in the Tour’s final time trial enhanced that end-of-era feel and, although she bounced back to produce to win the Tour of Scandinavia, her season as a whole would suggest retirement is coming at the right moment.

Aside from the Van Vleuten show, there was a big boost as Liane Lippert took a step up in performance, responsibility, and results. The German puncheur knocked on the door for much of the season, but once she’d bagged her second straight national road race title, she came into her own. She landed a fine stage win at the Tour de France, which felt like a big moment, and went on to win a stage of the Tour de Romandie and Tre Valli Varesine. For her efforts, she ended up ninth in the UCI rider rankings.

The team enjoyed a second Tour de France stage win thanks to Emma Norsgaard, who showed several flashes of her growing talent. Beyond those riders, there wasn’t a huge amount of depth. Katrine Aalerud, Floortje Mackaij, and Jelena Eric chipped in with wins, while the Cuban Arlenis Sierra was unable to raise her arms outside her national and continental championships, but was the team’s third-biggest points scorer, placing 41st in the rider rankings.

GCN’s rating: 8.5/10

Two Grand Tour victories and two Tour de France stages is still very very good.

Ins & Outs

It’s unrealistic to expect Movistar to be able to replace Van Vleuten. All-time greats are, naturally, hard to come by. In addition, there wasn’t a rich array of pickings on the transfer market this year, so Movistar head into 2024 with a weakened line-up.

Joining Van Vleuten on the exit list are Aalerud, who’s off to Uno-X, and two Spaniards who’d been there since the start: Lourdes Oyarbide and Alicia González. Coming in are Claire Steels from Israel-Premier Tech Roland, Olivia Baril from UAE Team ADQ, and young Spanish twins Lucia and Laura Ruiz Pérez.

They’ll need time to settle but Steels and Baril will both be expected to be among the team’s chief contributors. In fact, only Lippert was ranked higher than them last year. Baril is an exciting Canadian climber who finished fourth at Itzulia Women and Tour de l’Ardèche, while Steels is already 37 but is a latecomer to the sport who still has a great deal of potential to explore in 2024.

Where Movistar’s wins will come in 2024?

Without Van Vleuten, it’s going to be impossible for Movistar to do the things they’ve done for the past three years. This is now a very different team, and others will need to step up.

Lippert looks like the logical next linchpin. She took another stride towards the world’s best in 2023 and seemed to grow in confidence throughout the season. At 25, and with a greater leadership role awaiting, you sense there’s even more room for her to come into her own in 2024. It could be a really exciting season for the German.

Likewise, Norsgaard has the talent to help Movistar shine on the biggest stages, and she’ll be hoping for more consistency and some more top-level wins after her Tour de France breakthrough. That pair will combine for the Spring Classics, Norsgaard suited to the more rugged Flemish terrain, and Lippert to the hillier stuff.

Of the current crop, Sierra is a rider who has perhaps struggled to adjust to the Euro-centred race scene but never seems too far away from a big win, while Sarah Gigante will be like a new rider after missing much of 2023 through injury. Of the new recruits, Steels and Baril stand out as riders who can realistically expect to come in and produce decent performances in big races.

The question we asked earlier was whether the team had developed with Van Vleuten, rather than simply standing on her shoulders for the past couple of years. That does appear to be the case, with enthusiastic and ambitious management who were under no illusions that these glory years would be everlasting. 2024 is going to be a step back - there’s no avoiding that - but far from a regression to the pre-AVV days.

Movistar’s next breakout rider

When it comes to the team’s future, we’ve mentioned the Ruiz Pérez twins - both signed on three-year deals - but the most excitement surrounds Cat Ferguson, an 18-year-old British prospect. Ferguson will only join the team as a stagiaire from August, before going full-time on the WorldTour in 2025, so this is a long shot, but we wouldn’t be surprised to see her showcase a glimpse of her talent in the back-end of next year.

Ferguson is the latest in cycling’s trend of multi-discipline talents who has been prolific at the youth level, this year winning the junior versions of the Tour of Flanders and Trofeo Binda. She’s clearly not going to be a big contributor for Movistar in 2024, but she may just represent Movistar’s long-term future. It would be reckless to anoint any 18-year-old as a successor to Annemiek van Vleuten, but her contract structure, which runs through 2027, shows how Movistar are building their blocks for the future.

What do you think about Movistar’s 2023 season? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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