Mikel Landa's bid for the 2016 Giro d'Italia took a very important step in the right direction on Sunday when the Basque climber turned in a far better than expected time trial performance on stage 9 in Chianti.
It is almost a year to the day that Landa lost four minutes to overall leader Alberto Contador in the 2015 Giro d'Italia's key time trial, and the Sky rider himself had told Cyclingnews before the Giro started that the 40.5 kilometre time trial would be one of the most difficult moments of the race for him. Astana management had estimated, prior to the stage, that Landa would lose around a minute to Vincenzo Nibali (Astana).
As it turned out, it is Landa's rivals who perhaps should be more worried after the Basque finished 20th on the stage, just 22 seconds slower than Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) and only seven seconds slower than Nibali. He even gained three seconds on Steven Kruiswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) and four on Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) as well as nearly two minutes on Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale) and 1:28 on Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge).
Rather than finding himself on the backfoot in the time trial, in fact, Landa was either in a similar position to his closest rivals, or gaining ground on them.
Landa, eighth overall at 1:18, was understandably very satisfied with his performance. That was particularly the case after an uneven first week for Landa where he had, as he told reporters, initially suffered in the early part of the race.
"It went really well, losing so little time to a specialist like Dumoulin is really important, and I'm very optimistic for the days to come. I've come out of this time trial with my overall position a lot stronger."
"I haven't been feeling so great in the last few days with the heat, but yesterday [stage 8, where Landa was dropped early on the final climb but regained contact - Ed] I took a little step forwards and today things have gone even better."
He was surprised by having turned in such a strong performance against the clock, but recalled that he had worked hard on improving his time trialling over the winter. "I didn't want to be optimistic or pessimistic until this stage was over, but it's gone well and there's a lot of the Giro to come. There had been a lot of talk about how much time I would lose on this stage, and very little about how much I could take, but in fact it's been a very good stage."
Asked if he was more optimistic about a top three finish in Turin, Landa was cautious, saying "a little. But there's a long way to go and we should take things day by day."
Even so, Landa has clearly finished the Giro d'Italia's first section in a far stronger position than looked possible when he started it. And with the high mountains fast looming on the horizon, starting with Tuesday's summit finish, Landa's opportunities to gain important chunks of time could be just around the corner.
More in this story:
- Giro d'Italia stage 9 - Finish line quotes
- Giro d'Italia stage 9 - Video highlights
- Cancellara abandons Giro d'Italia