- Jan 3, 2005
During last month’s Giro d’Italia, Mikel Landa learned two of the longest-running truths of the peloton; the most deserving doesn’t always lead the team, and the strongest doesn’t always win the race.
The 25-year-old Basque rider on Astana was the revelation of the 2015 Giro, but he ran headlong into internal team politics, and came up against a wiser and more experienced Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) in what was an emotional and exceptional three-week run across Italy. With two stage wins and third overall, Landa was the breakout star of the Giro, but could it have been even more?
That question will be rattling around Landa’s head for a long time, but in the aftermath of his amazing Giro, he was focusing on the positive.
“They said right from the beginning that Fabio Aru was the leader. Later, the race unfolded as it did, and I had my options,” Landa said in an interview. “I can’t dwell on it too much, because I am very happy with the two stage wins and the third place overall.”
Not many had even heard of Landa before the start of the Giro. Before this season, Landa was seen as an improving climber who might have GC potential, with stage victories at the 2011 Vuelta a Burgos and the 2014 Giro del Trentino, but no one expected him to ride so strong and consistently throughout the Giro, perhaps not even his own Astana team.
Astana sport director Giuseppe Martinelli brought a squad to protect its up-and-coming star Aru to take on Contador in a fight for the pink jersey. At the start of the Giro, there was never any confusion about who was the leader, but things changed as Landa looked stronger at every turn.
“Our leader is Fabio, and our goal is to improve on last year’s result,” Martinelli told VeloNews midway through the Giro, referring to Aru’s third place in 2014. “Riders like Landa will have some freedom, but we race with the idea of supporting Fabio, and everyone knows that.”
As the Giro unfolded, with Landa gaining steam in the deep mountains just as Aru started to fade, the feisty Basque climber found that the team dynamics would literally stop him in his tracks.
It’s a story that’s been repeated across the history of the peloton, from Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault in the 1985 Tour de France, to Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome during the 2012 Tour. Sometimes a team will hold its own riders in check to assure that the designated team captain rides as high as possible on GC. There’s nothing new about that, but Landa admitted he had a hard time accepting that during the heat of the Giro.
Things came to an emotional head during the final week of the Giro. Landa had won back-to-back mountain stages at Madonna di Campiglio and Aprica, moving into second place overall, bouncing 50 seconds ahead of Aru on GC.
Contador widened his lead in stage 18, but was smart enough to exploit the growing division within the team, smothering any moves by Landa on the next day’s stage to Cervinia, allowing Aru to play his card as the young Italian recovered his form in the wake of his near-disastrous stage over the Mortirolo. With victory at Cervinia, Aru moved back ahead of Landa into second at 4:37 back, and Contador all but neutralized the growing threat from Landa.
Polemics on Finestre
Just when Contador looked to have things firmly in control, things began to unravel on the gravel road climb at Finestre in the Giro’s penultimate stage, when the pink jersey was isolated early and then got surprisingly gapped on the wrong side of the summit. Landa wanted to go, but the Astana team car told him to sit up and wait for Aru to bridge up, who later charged to another stage victory at Sestriere, taking more than two minutes out of the struggling Contador.
Landa couldn’t hold back the tears at the finish line as the peloton’s hardest lessons hit home.
“I would have liked to have won, but they stopped me from the car because they thought that they could win the Giro with Fabio,” Landa said. “That left me with no option but to follow the orders of the directors in the car.
“Maybe we should have tried earlier [on Finestre] to see if Contador was not feeling good, but we never dared, and the best won during three weeks of racing,” Landa later reflected. “To win the Giro, no, because Alberto is Alberto. Even if he did a have a bajón, he was never going to crack because he controls the time differences very well … I was watching him, and I didn’t know if he was good or bad.”
Apologies and thanks
In the aftermath of the emotional ride across Italy, Landa has been more reflective over the past few days. On Tuesday, he was awarded a hero’s welcome in his hometown in Murgia, a small town hidden deep in Spain’s Basque Country. He even apologized for failing to remove his cap when Spain’s national anthem was broadcast during the awards ceremony Sunday in Milano. Many viewed it as a deliberate snub to Spain, which has been struggling with the Basque Country independence issue for decades, but Landa simply said he was lost in the moment.
“I was distracted. I was in the clouds, on the podium next to Aru and Contador,” Landa said. “I didn’t do it with malice, and I ask forgiveness from anyone who felt offended.”
Landa thanked his team and Aru for allowing him to ride onto the podium. Although Astana played its own tactical game, favoring Aru and even stopping Landa on the Finestre, Landa also realized that it was thanks to Aru’s role as the principal rival to Contador and the overall strength of Astana that allowed him to attack as he did. On another weaker team, Landa likely would not have gone as far in this Giro had he started as an outright leader and a target for Contador.
Aru, too, thanked Landa for his loyalty and said the pair got along well, citing Landa’s decision to help pace him up the Mortirolo in stage 16 when the Italian was clearly suffering against Contador’s counter-attack.
“Mikel did exceptional work. In my view our tactics were spot on, and even more important than that is that the team was exceptional and everyone gave their best,” Aru said. “I have a fantastic relationship with Mikel. We get on very well together and his behavior during this Giro has been great. I will always remember that he waited 6 or 7 kilometers on the Mortirolo when I didn’t have the legs to stay with him, and then he rode up to Contador and afterwards went off to win a beautiful stage. He didn’t ride his own race, but he waited for me, which does him honor, and I thank him. He has won two stages during this Giro, and in the future he’ll certainly achieve great things.”
In the end, Astana comes away very happy with the Giro. It won five stages, the team prize, and placed second and third on the podium, an excellent haul by any measure. Astana threw everything they had at Contador, but couldn’t break him. The Kazakh outfit had that Spaniard on the ropes more than a few times, especially when they were able to shed Contador’s Tinkoff helpers alarmingly early in several key mountain stages, but Contador’s experience and gains he made in the stage 14 time trial prove critical.
Finding a home
Some see Landa as a possible successor to Contador, who could retire by the end of 2016. The pair had a few confrontations during this Giro, and when asked about Landa, Contador was uncharacteristically standoffish about his younger rival, saying, “We have to wait and see how he develops.”
Landa wasn’t afraid to stand up to Contador, and said, “During the race, there are no friends, especially not him,” but later cooled those comments by adding, “There’s no problem with [Contador], far from it. What happens is that during the race, you’re rivals, and everyone is trying to do their best for their team.”
As the dust settled on the Giro, Landa was already looking ahead optimistically to the remainder of the season. With growing talk that Aru might make his Tour de France debut next month instead of going to the Vuelta a España as planned, Landa is hoping to take on the Spanish tour as outright leader.
“I have all summer to listen to offers and make a decision,” Landa said. “Now I am going to rest, train with my friends, and think about the next race.”
With his contract up at the end of this season, he will be learning other lessons in the European peloton, about how to find the right team, with the right dynamics, and where he will be the outright leader instead of being viewed as the enemy within. Unfortunately, the Basque-based team Euskaltel-Euskadi, where Landa turned pro in 2011, folded at the end of the 2013 season. With only one Spanish team remaining at the elite of the peloton — Movistar, which has already selected Nairo Quintana as its leader — Landa might find it a little more difficult to find that sweet spot in the peloton than he does pedaling up steep mountain roads.
Back in the 1980s, LeMond eventually got Hinault’s support, and became the first American to win the Tour de France. And Froome took over the Sky mantle from Wiggins to win the yellow jersey in 2013. It’s highly unlikely that Astana will dump defending Tour champ Vincenzo Nibali or crown prince Aru to make room for Landa.
The post In his breakout Giro, Landa learning hard lessons inside the peloton appeared first on VeloNews.com.
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