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March 2017 was quite a month for Marc Soler. Born 23 years ago in a Barcelona suburb, his performances at the Volta a Catalunya — third overall, putting Chris Froome into trouble on a climb — make up one of the best arguments against the sad prophecies of a miserable decline for Spanish cycling following the sunset of a generation of champions like Alejandro Valverde, Alberto Contador, Óscar Freire, Purito Rodríguez, and Samuel Sánchez.
Fortunately, reality rarely goes as far as the most grim predictions. Riders such as Ion Izagirre, Mikel Landa, or Jonathan Castroviejo are already established in the elite of the peloton, while others like David de la Cruz, Omar Fraile, and Rubén Fernández are rising through the ranks.
In the meantime, young Spanish talents born well into the 90s arrive to the UCI World Tour with very bright prospects.
Marc Soler is one of those. His promise was already seen in the U23 ranks, and at various UCI Europe Tour races, where he tore the peloton down to pieces working for teammates. Yet he rarely had been seen on TV, arguably only in a successful breakaway in the 2015 Volta a Catalunya, and in his victorious stage in the 2016 Route du Sud.
That all changed in March, when the Catalan rider seems to have come into his own. At Paris-Nice he was the best workhorse for teammate Gorka Izagirre, who finished fourth overall, and he offered a stunning performance in the final stage of the Race to the Sun, in the midst during Contador’s dramatic offensive for victory.
His performance at his home race, the Volta a Catalunya, was even more impressive. Soler was the last domestique for GC winner Alejandro Valverde on the two mountaintop finishes, where he was able to outpace the three-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome, whom he attacked on a climb during Stage 4.
After several years of gradual improvement, Soler has skyrocketed to the top level of the sport and is now in the spotlight. Here are a handful of facts and anecdotes that help illustrate his rise.
He was a footballer until age 17
Back when he was a child, Soler was into rock climbing. His parents loved to spend the weekends on the countryside and introduced both Marc and his brother Pol to this sport. “We learned how to climb before even walking properly,” he recalls fondly.
Afterwards, he followed the common path of every young sportsman in Spain by joining the local football team. He took on cycling when he was 13. “There was this cycling club that lent you a bike if you were interested on riding,” he recounts. “I asked for one, I used it for a while, and I just fell in love with the sport.”
At first he did mostly mountain biking, “to enjoy the landscape and avoid cars,” but soon after started racing on the track and on the road. By age 17, his parents wanted him to choose, either the ball or the bike. He went with the latter.
He made a name for himself with long-range attacks
When Soler jumped to the U23 ranks from the Huesca La Magia junior team, he was recruited by Equipo Lizarte, unofficial feeder team of Movistar. In that squad he was directed by legendary coach Manolo Azcona, the man who once guided Joseba Beloki, Isidro Nozal, and Andrey Amador, who immediately reckoned Soler was a talent to watch.
In August 2013, Equipo Lizarte was meant to be the dominant outfit of the Vuelta a Palencia, one of the best amateur races in Spain. The sponsors of the team traveled to follow the performance of their young cyclists. They expected it to be brilliant, but it happened to be a disaster on the first two days. In the aftermath of the second stage, Soler told the whole crew he was going to make up for the disappointment. The following day he attacked with 100 kilometres to go and rode solo all the way to the finish.
This was Soler’s first breakthrough ride, one which set the pattern for the rest of his spell in the U23 scene. He won a number of Spanish amateur races with long-range offensives, often solo, in which he used his build (“tall like a rouleur, light like a climber,” Azcona says) and his impressive engine to complete them successfully.
He even tried to replicate this way of racing on his only appearance at the U23 Tour of Flanders. For him, the Flemish classic was the last of a string of events in Belgium and Netherlands in which he contended with the Spanish national U23 team. He was discovering what until then was uncharted territory for him, and decided to try and “make an impression” by attacking from the gun and arriving “as far as possible.” He was the last of the escapees to be caught by the peloton that day.
He won the Tour de l’Avenir by overwhelming the contention
Soler became a pro with Movistar in 2015. After a couple of races, most members of the Spanish squad were amazed by both his physical capacity and his innocent, guileless personality. “He is like a little child with a very big engine,” then-teammate Javi Moreno told this journalist then. “He is as strong as few in the team, yet in every situation makes these innocent questions or comments out of mere naivety.”
He was, in one word, green — and he is, still. That’s why most of his victories aren’t tactical masterpieces, but amazing displays of strength. An example of this is his stage win at 2016 Route du Sud, in which managed to raise his arms despite having been committed to working for Nairo Quintana during the two final climbs of the day. He was simply the strongest on that Pyrenean trek.
But his marquee performance so far has been the 2015 Tour de l’Avenir. There, he managed to be a level above a field that included current WorldTour riders such as Sebastián Henao (Sky), Jack Haig (Orica-Scott), Laurens de Plus (Quick Step), and Matvey Mamykin (Katusha-Alpecin).
Soler was solid during the whole week of racing and managed to grab the yellow jersey on the second-to-last day, on the eve of what was arguably the queen stage from Les Bottières to Les Sybelles, going over the Croix-de-Fer and two other Cat.1 climbs. The Colombian national team did its best to shake up the race, and every team leader was isolated with more than 60 kilometres to go. Soler paced himself up the Croix-de-Fer and was the head of the race by its summit. Later, he paid for his efforts and was overtaken by Mamykin and Haig. But he kept first place on GC to capture the most relevant victory of his current palmares.
Purito Rodríguez touted him as his successor
In the winter of 2015, Ciclismo a Fondo ran a special issue on the future of Spanish cycling in which current stars were offered the chance of picking their successors. Alberto Contador chose Carlos Verona. Alejandro Valverde went with Rubén Fernández. Purito Rodríguez opted for Soler.
Purito and Soler don’t share many characteristics. The Bahrain-Merida ambassador is 20 centimetres (almost eight inches) shorter than his fellow Catalan, who is in turn much lankier and doesn’t have that punch that permitted Purito to excel in the Ardennes classics. On the other hand, Purito has been a consistent Grand Tour rider, and Soler looks set to become one in the future. They also work with the same rider agent, former cyclist Angel Edo.
Purito told the Spanish cycling magazine his reasons to pick Soler. “He is very strong and relatively big to his climbing abilities. He has an astounding engine inside. I’ve followed his steps since his years in Lizarte, when he won almost everything he wanted. He can become an all-rounder, and has proven his stage racing prospects time and again.”
Valverde, another Spanish hero, said in June 2016 that he considered Soler to be “an amazing powerhouse.”
“He is still too green to be a winner because no one can triumph in a WorldTour race by merely being the strongest,” Valverde said. “But, if he develops a race craft as mighty as his physical capacities, he can very well succeed in the Tour de France.”
He may debut this year at the Vuelta
Soler’s recent performances haven’t come as a surprise to Movistar team management, which indeed extended his contract over the winter through 2019.
After Catalunya, he is expected to race the Vuelta al País Vasco, and then take a well-deserved rest. The rest of his schedule hasn’t been disclosed. Some rumours say he is Tour-bound this same year, but it seems more likely that his Grand Tour debut will happen later on at the Vuelta a España.
Soler doesn’t stress too much about what his maiden three-week race will be. “Last word I got from [Eusebio Unzue, Movistar manager] is that I may not race a Grand Tour this year,” he told Ciclismo a Fondo. “I would like to, but in the end the team staff has way more experience than I do and probably does know what the ideal timing is for my first Grand Tour better than I do. Things are going well, I am improving adequately, so I’m not in any hurry.”
Video: Marc Soler, October 2015
About the author
Fran Reyes wanted to make a living out of modeling but had to settle with being a journalist. Nowadays, he is a freelance cycling writer featuring mostly in Spanish media and goes to the gym once a week, slowly chasing his dream of posing for Yves Saint Laurent. You can follow him on Twitter: @FranReyesF