While stage winner Fabio Aru (Astana) and maglia rosa Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) traded compliments on RAI television’s Processo alla Tappa post-stage analysis show, the Giro d’Italia’s third man Mikel Landa had to content himself with a consolation prize as he spoke to reporters after descending from the podium in Sestriere.
“Well, I won the Cima Coppi, eh,” Landa said of the award for being first to the summit of the Giro’s highest mountain pass, the Colle delle Finestre, though at that point, he had loftier goals in mind.
Six kilometres from the summit of the Finestre, after asphalt had given way to a dirt track, Landa launched a rasping acceleration from the front of the pink jersey group. With disarming ease, the Basque surged across to early escapee Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha), while the race fragmented behind.
While Landa’s teammate Aru summoned up the strength to follow the chasers, Ryder Hesjedal (Cannondale-Garmin) and Rigoberto Urán (Etixx-QuickStep), Contador was placed under severe duress for the first time at this Giro. Within a couple of kilometres, he trailed Landa by a minute. Come the summit, Contador was 1:30 down and visibly struggling. Just for a moment, his unassailable lead seemed under threat.
At the base of the short final haul to Sestriere, however, Landa’s progress was arrested by orders from the team car. With Aru’s group some 30 seconds behind, Landa said that he was instructed to slacken the pace and wait to join forces with him. Once Aru and company made the junction, Landa was then delegated to prepare the ground for his teammate’s late, stage winning attack.
“I would have liked to have won the stage but I was stopped by the team car because they had the idea that they could win the Giro [with Aru] and I had to follow orders,” said Landa.
Landa had begun the day 5:15 off Contador’s maglia rosa but just 38 seconds down on Aru’s second place overall, but despite his show of force on the Finestre, he will ride into Milan on Sunday still in third place, 3:14 off Contador and now 1:12 down on his teammate. The Basque’s principl regret after the stage, however, was that Astana hadn’t realised that Contador was experiencing his first jour sans of the Giro and attacked him sooner.
“Maybe we should have tried earlier,” Landa said. “But Alberto didn’t look too bad because he had responded to Kruijswijk and Hesjedal’s attacks and that intimidated us a bit. That’s his strength. He knew how to control things and he succeeded completely.”
At the start in Saint-Vincent, Landa had conceded tactfully to Cyclingnews that there wasn’t any particular “feeling” between him and Contador, but he hailed his fellow countryman as a worthy winner of this Giro at the finish in Sestriere.
“He was the best,” Landa said. “He managed his strength best and he controlled things best, and here, the best rider always wins.”
Landa’s startling series of performance were the biggest of the Giro’s many surprises, and mark a considerable leap in quality over his displays as a professional to date. He finishes this Giro with two stage wins to his name and considerable bargaining power when it comes to negotiating a new contract – and perhaps a new team – for 2016.
“My next objective is the Vuelta a España, but I’m happy with my Giro,” Landa said. “It’s a big turning point in my career and I’ll look on things from a different perspective now.”