They reached Milan with five stage wins, second and third place overall, the teams classification and the white jersey of best young rider, yet the defining image of Astana’s Giro d’Italia may well be the sight of two directeurs sportifs side by side in the team car on the road to Sestriere, each talking into his own radio.
Mikel Landa’s fierce attack on the slopes of the Colle delle Finestre on Saturday afternoon didn’t just thrust maglia rosa Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) into a wholly unexpected crisis, it also threatened to see him – once again – usurp the team’s anointed leader Fabio Aru, prompting Giuseppe Martinelli and Alexander Shefer to rein him in at the base of the final climb to Sestriere.
Throughout the final week, Landa had appeared visibly stronger than Aru every time the road climbed, but – thanks in no small part to Contador’s tight marking on the road to Cervinia on Friday – he found himself in third place overall ahead of the penultimate stage, 5:15 down on the maglia rosa and 38 seconds off his teammate’s second place.
Speaking to Cyclingnews in Saint-Vincent at the start on Saturday morning, Landa downplayed the notion that he would try to contest Aru’s second place on the Giro’s final mountain stage. “I don’t think I’ll be able to attack because Fabio is my teammate, but if Alberto goes, I’ll have to go with him,” he said.
Four hours later, shortly after the asphalt of the Finestre had given way to dirt roads, Landa had seemingly forgotten those words; or at least, he certainly wasn’t following Contador when he unleashed a searing acceleration that instantly saw him open a sizeable gap over the pink jersey group. By the summit, where he pipped earlier escapee Ilnur Zakarin to win the Cima Coppi prize, the Basque was 1:27 clear of a struggling Contador – he would later cite dehydration for his travails – but Aru was in a chasing group 32 seconds behind.
As Landa began the final climb to the line, however, his pace slackened as he sat up to wait for Aru to make the junction. Despite a sense of disappointment that would be apparent as he smiled wanly on the podium afterwards, Landa diligently set the pace in the expanded front group, preparing the terrain for Aru to launch the stage-winning attack two kilometres from the top. Landa had to settle for fourth on the stage and third place overall, and was reportedly in tears after crossing the line.
“The team told me to wait as they thought they could win the Giro with Fabio because they saw Contador in difficulty,” Landa said afterwards. “I’d like to have won [the stage], so when they stop you to work it’s not the best thing.”
The differing reactions in Spain and Italy to the stage were instructive. On Saturday evening, a Spanish news agency misconstrued Landa’s words to imply that he had claimed Astana had prevented him from winning the Giro itself. In reality, Landa had said no such thing. The front page of Sunday morning’s Gazzetta dello Sport, meanwhile, included the less than convincing assertion that it was in fact Aru who had “scared King Contador.”
Shefer and Martinelli
One half of Astana’s air control, Alexander Shefer, explained that the team’s idea was “to blow the race apart” having realised that Contador was enduring a jour sans on the Finestre. “Landa made a great attack on the Colle delle Finestre, and if we stopped him on the climb to Sestriere it was because Aru was higher on GC and had a bigger possibility of worrying Contador,” Shefer told Gazzetta. “He complied and he showed great loyalty, in contrast to what everyone was thinking.”
On the podium in Milan on Sunday, Aru and Landa stood on either side of Contador, 2:02 and 3:14 down on the maglia rosa, respectively. The team also placed Kangert in 13th overall and, as Contador said on Saturday, “every time there was a group of 10, there were five Astana riders. When there was a group of eight, they would be four of them.”
For much of the race, Astana’s riders – not just Aru and Landa – seemed a level above almost all others, just weeks after the team risked exclusion from the WorldTour due to a spate of positive tests last season, yet the biggest prize of all eluded them. For all the home euphoria over Aru’s late reanimation, Astana’s failure to convert that collective strength into an individual overall victory has been the subject of some frank criticism.
“I’m used to being criticised,” Astana’s head directeur sportif Martinelli told Gazzetta. “But we have two riders on the podium behind a man called Contador and not ‘Rataplan’ [a dog from the Lucky Luke cartoon strip – ed.]
“I’m still hearing people say that we used up too much energy in the first week, but do you realise how many rivals we eliminated? And I’m not just talking about Porte and Urán. Take Kruijswijk, who is 7th on GC, and look at how much he lost on the stage to La Spezia [8:05 – ed] and do the math.”
In winning two stages and reaching Milan in second place overall, Aru reaffirmed his leadership at the end of a sometimes troubled Giro, which had already began under an ill star due to his reported bout of illness beforehand and the accusation subsequently levelled against him by Greg Henderson – later retracted – which prompted him to initiate legal proceedings.
Two days before the Giro, however, Astana announced that Aru had extended his contract with the team to stay put until the end of 2017, and as such, his status in the team was clear from the outset. Landa, by contrast, is out of contract at the end of the current campaign, and though he entered this Giro as one gregario of many at Astana, his haul of WorldTour points means that he faces a rather different future, either at the Kazakhstani team or elsewhere.
When Astana general manager Alexandre Vinokourov said on Saturday afternoon that he was now considering sending Aru to the Tour de France alongside defending champion Vincenzo Nibali, he was most likely simply placating RAI television’s line of questioning, but such a decision would also make way for Landa to ride as sole leader at the Vuelta a España in September.
“There are two leaders here already. I’ll have to think about it a bit and see what the team offers me from a sporting point of view, if I can do the Vuelta or the Giro or so on,” Landa had told Cyclingnews of his Astana future on Saturday morning.
The events that followed at Sestriere, however, were perhaps not the most encouraging start to those negotiations, even if Landa struck a diplomatic note in Milan on Sunday afternoon. “Maybe we could go to the Vuelta with two leaders,” he said.