Landa eclipses Aru on the Mortirolo

"We saw Contador's problem and we tried to keep things difficult"

Mikel Landa's decision to eschew the diplomatic answer made for a refreshing change of pace in the mixed zone in Aprica following his victory on stage 16 of the Giro d'Italia, where the debate of the day concerned maglia rosa Alberto Contador's puncture on the descent ahead of the Mortirolo, and the rights and wrongs of Astana's and Katusha's decision not to relax their pace on the front.

"We were all together as a team. We saw Contador's problem and we tried to keep things difficult," Landa said matter-of-factly when the question was put to him, seemingly unfazed by the consequences of such truth-telling. Perhaps polemica eventually dulls to mere elevator muzak. "I believe that we caused him some pain to catch us. Katusha broke up the group and went full gas, and we collaborated with them."

Initially at least, Landa was similarly forthcoming when asked if he was now Astana's sole leader, after a day that had seen him leapfrog Fabio Aru in the general classification. The Basque is now second overall, 4:02 down on Contador but 50 seconds ahead of his teammate.

"Yes," Landa said simply, before adding: "But there are two easier days coming up so we'll try to recover a bit and make the race together."

Their bid to make the race together on the lower slopes of the Mortirolo on Tuesday simply confirmed what the second week of the Giro had already suggested, that Landa is significantly stronger than his team leader. They began the climb with a 52-second advantage over the chasing Contador, and when Landa took over the pace-making, it was immediately apparent that Aru, his shoulders rocking, was struggling to keep time with the Basque.

If anything, one felt that Landa was riding within himself, which surely helped Contador in his solo bid to make up the deficit. When Contador caught up seven kilometres from the summit and launched an attack of his own, Landa followed and Aru was finally left to his own devices.

"At the start with Aru, we tried to wear Contador down. I tried to set a regular tempo," Landa said. "When Alberto caught up and then attacked, the team saw that I was strong so I was told to follow him and try to win the stage."

They had Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) for company on the upper reaches of the Mortirolo, and the Dutchman performed the bulk of the pace-making, with Contador largely content to follow and Landa bound by team orders not to work at all. Contador contributed more on the descent, but said afterwards that he wanted to cede the stage win to Kruijswijjk in recognition of his efforts.

Landa, however, jumped away from his two companions with a shade over four kilometres remaining, soloing home to win his second successive stage by 38 seconds. He dismissed the idea that he had reached a pact with Contador en route to his previous win at Madonna di Campiglio, and said that they had not spoken at all in the finale at Aprica.

"Alberto and I didn't talk, least of all today," Landa said. "I saw he and Kruijswijk were talking and I could see that they had worked together and Alberto wanted him to win. But I attacked to see how their strength was and I saw I was the strongest."

Leadership

Just weeks on from securing a reprieve from the Licence Commission after the UCI had requested their exclusion from the WorldTour following a spate of doping cases, the Astana squad has performed at a strikingly high level at this Giro. From as early as stage 8 to Campitello Matese, Landa has appeared as their stand-out performer, though he batted away the notion that Astana ought to have brought him to the race as team leader.

The former Euskaltel-Euskadi rider's best finish at a Grand Tour was 28th at last year's Vuelta a España, though as an amateur he finished 5th in the hugely competitive Tour de l'Avenir of 2010, which was won by Nairo Quintana ahead of Andrew Talansky.

"Maybe if I'd come here as leader I'd have done nothing, you never know," he said. "This situation is new for me. There's still a lot of the Giro to go and we'll see how it finishes. There are two easier days to come now and we'll see how Fabio recovers. It would be nice to have the two of us together to test Alberto."

While Landa is beginning to overshadow the Italian favourite at the Giro, there is little prospect of the same thing happening at the Tour de France, as he will not be in the team that supports Vincenzo Nibali's bid for a repeat victory.

"I almost definitely won't do the Tour. It wasn't on my programme and I think it's too much," Landa said. It remains to be seen whether Landa is still in the light blue of Astana in 2016. "It's true that my contract is up and the end of this year. When the Giro is over, we'll see."

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