The brand new Challenge Mallorca Femenina race series kicked-off the 2024 European women’s calendar at the weekend, and as the home WorldTour team, the Movistar squad were keen to aim to make an impact. More so than usual this year.
For Movistar, when the whistle blew to mark the start of the first-ever Trofeo Felanitx-Colonia de Sant Jordi (Ses Salines), the sound simultaneously ushered in the team’s first pedal strokes since 2020 without the towering figure of Annemiek van Vleuten in their ranks.
How the Van Vleuten-vacuum will affect the broader peloton remains to be seen, but if there’s one place where it’s already been noted, it has to be in Movistar.
The three Mallorca one-day races acted as curtain-raisers on that adaption process, of course: But the Spanish team’s riders have already begun to work through what the broader brushstrokes of what racing without Van Vleuten could be like.
“Annemiek’s been very important for the team, a great leader, a person who has given a lot to cycling, a reference point,” up-and-coming pro Sara Martín told Cyclingnews at the Queens of the Alhambra race in Granada, the first Spanish criterium specifically created for the women’s peloton which took place last December.
When asked back then if she believes Van Vleuten’s absence will mark a ‘before’ and ‘after’ for Movistar, she answers simply, “I think so.”
“Not having that key leader in the Grand Tours this year will make the team change. We’ve always been consistent, and maybe we’ll all be playing our cards in different races now, being more versatile and doing the races differently. But we’ll still have some different challenges and some great options.”
Martin says, even though specific strategies are too early to pin down, “we’ll have to wait until the beginning of the season for that, but we already know it’ll be different.”
“But you never know. It could even be a good thing, it could mean the other riders can evolve and we will have other opportunities and we can be more ambitious as well.”
In terms of how ambitious Martín will aim to be in 2024, even last December, her goals were clear.
“I want to go flat out, and every rider wants to prepare themselves as well as possible. I think I’ve got room for improvement and lots of details I can polish. I think I can be at least as good as I was at the end of last year, maybe even improve a lot more.”
Before and after
It’s not just Movistar that have experienced a ‘before’ and ‘after’ moment.
Considered for several years as one of Spain’s most promising racers alongside teammate Lucia Ruiz (Movistar), Martin managed to secure her first professional victory in 2023.
Just as Van Vleuten’s departure is a major change for Movistar in general, coming home solo for a hilly stage win in the Vuelta a Andalucia, ahead of Israel-Premier Tech-Roland rider Elizabeth Stannard also represented a turning point in Martín’s career.
“It was very important because this year  and the previous one have been tricky for me, not the best,” Martín says.
“Even from before this victory, from the Itzulia Basque Country [in early May] onwards, I was on the comeback trail after a series of injuries. But the win gave me a lot of confidence which I needed and which means I can now continue to grow in this season.”
Martín was injured in a training accident in December 2021, colliding with a vehicle when training, and then illness and other health issues meant she wasn’t performing at 100% in 2022.
“But the win Andalucia came at a time when my form was good, in a race when we had a lot of freedom to make the most of our own options. Maybe in other races, you don’t get so much freedom, with Annemiek there, we had to race for her or other leaders, so I wanted to use that opportunity.
“So the motivation was there, and also some anger because I’d had a mechanical the day before when I’d been in a position to win. That made me angrier and more determined to go for the victory, to show that what had happened on the previous stage had nothing to do with my form and everything to do with race circumstances.”
Fast but steady
When it comes to the 2024 early season in general, Martín says, Movistar have encouraged their rider to race events like Mallorca with better than usual form for this time of year but with a view to the long term goal of the season.
“The team has asked us not to be really strong from the start, because if you do that, you’d have to keep going at that level and that’s really difficult,” she explained.
“But they certainly want us to be going well and to do that first segment of the calendar in good shape. After that, we’ll hopefully have a break and then be able to keep going, stay consistent and in May, or the middle of the year, hit a real peak.”
With that in mind, Martín said in December, she’d pulled forward her own training program by roughly four weeks in terms of intensity and building for the season, doing specific work to try and hit January in good condition.
“I might have started a month later in other years, but this time round is different.”
There can be no doubt, either, that the absence of Van Vleuten, makes riders like her keen to demonstrate their form early in the season, knowing that these opportunities to shine more in their own right than previously are on offer.
“Of course,” she agrees.
“We’re all ambitious, we’re a team that sometimes needs to work for a leader, but you also want your chance and be able to fight for a race.” As she reveals in other parts of the interview, her hand is most definitely up in the air to try and do that. “I can be in the final battle on some days,” she says, “and on occasion, even more than that.”
But if Martín is keen to prove her own worth – and in races like the Spanish National Championships, her multiple U23 titles in road and time trial categories have repeatedly highlighted her talent – the legacy Van Vleuten has cast over Movistar remains massive.
Martín joined the Spanish squad in 2021, the same year as the Dutchwoman. During that time she’s been able to witness how Van Vleuten took no less than 31 wins, nearly a third of her career total, in everything from World Championships through to the Olympics, the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España.
Martín has also been able to witness Van Vleuten as a professional, and how time and again, she was able to deliver.
If there was one quality Martín could take from Van Vleuten’s arsenal of talents, she says, “It’d be the ability she had to suffer, to go on the limit and never give up, to be so stubborn and so consistent. That’s one of the qualities that helped her go as far as she could.”
And now, with Van Vleuten becoming part of the team’s history, it’s time for riders like Martín to use Van Vleuten’s example and inspiration to see just how far they can get, too.