It's business as usual at Movistar, new signing Mikel Landa (Team Sky) has insisted, and in a good way, too. After last month's controversial interview in which Landa expressed uncertainty about how warm a welcome he would receive from future teammate – and tried-and-tested Grand Tour contender – Nairo Quintana, when it actually came to meeting at the Movistar training camp, the two are, he says, getting on well.
The ice appears to have been broken at a 'rookie party' held at Halloween in honour of the new signings for 2018 in Movistar, complete with practical jokes and disguises. Website Ciclo21 reported that during the festivities, thanks to some senior teammates, Quintana and Landa were handcuffed together, with – in keeping with the prison 'theme' – the Basque rider dressed in a convict's outfit. It almost goes without saying that Landa was made to carry a sign with his fans' battle-cry of 'Free Landa.'
By Friday, a soon-to-be emancipated Landa, now wearing his 'civilian' clothing, said his programme for 2018 remained undecided. But the Basque recognised that there could well be points where his and Quintana's objectives would overlap, most notably at the Tour de France. That said, he has yet to rule out racing the Giro d'Italia in 2018 instead of the Tour, given Landa has what he terms "unfinished business" with the Italian Grand Tour, where he finished third in 2015.
Landa said that once the rookie party rites of passage were done and dusted, he felt "good, because it's a way of getting over any sense of shyness and it makes it easier to fit in. I don't really use the 'Free Landa' slogan as a demand, it's more something my teammates at Sky came up with in the Tour as kind of a joke."
There has been a sense of homecoming for Landa in other ways, too, at Movistar. "These team get-togethers tend to be similar no matter which squad you're in, but the atmosphere here is different. No matter how much you learn the language of the team you're in, it's not so easy to share in things like the sense of humour. Here it's easier to integrate in that way."
Landa says that rather than having a calendar imposed upon him by Movistar, they have left it up to him to express his preferences. "Maybe initially I won't get to do all the races I want to, but I think long-term this was the right team to sign for," he said.
"For the first time [in my career] I was absolutely sure which team I wanted to be in the following year. I wanted to come here [to Movistar]. I started thinking about it before the Giro, and then more before the Tour, but things kept on changing, so it was something I had to think hard about."
Movistar manager Eusebio Unzue has been keen to sign Landa in the past, and finally the pieces of the jigsaw have fit together in the way that means the rider and team could ink a deal. "Rather than the team changing, I think it was me," Landa argues, "finally deciding this was the best way to do things.
"We haven't really discussed the calendar yet, but looking at how I got on in the Tour last year, I'm keen to go back. But first I want to see what the Giro route is like before I decide for one or the other."
Mikel Landa at the 2017 Tour de France (Bettini Photo)
If predictions of a large amount of time trialling in the Giro end up being correct, he says, it will not be a problem. In the past it has proved to be an area in which he has sometimes performed well, like in the Giro mid-race TT in 2016, and sometimes not.
"I'm no longer afraid of time trials," he said. "With the exception of a few riders, who stand out at time trialling, most Grand Tour contenders who are good climbers, like me, are not much better than me." That said, he does admit that one reason he is attracted to the 2018 Tour is the lack of time trialling kilometres: "as long there's a [Tom] Dumoulin or a Chris Froome out there, the less the better."
While the Tour has a definite appeal for Landa, he gives the impression that he has invested more emotionally in the Giro d'Italia in his career to date, and it's certainly featured heavily, for better and worse, in his Grand Tour record up to now. It started with his finishing third in the 2015 Giro d'Italia, his breakthrough Grand Tour result. Then in 2016 he abandoned through illness, and in 2017 he crashed badly, through no fault of his own, and wrecked his GC chances in the process.
"I've still got unfinished business with that race," Landa says. "Okay, I could turn things round to a complicated situation last May, but what I came away with [a string of top three placings in the final week, a stage win and the King of the Mountains title – ed.] was not what I had as an objective. So I'll have to go back to sort that out."
Landa leaves Team Sky, he says, "feeling regretful, because I went there because of their Grand Tour track record of success and for one reason or another I've not been able to fight for any."
Emotionally too, he says, 2017 proved something of a rollercoaster. "Losing Michele [Scarponi] was very difficult, for me and for everybody. On the good side, in terms of my feelings, I'd say the way I turned things around at the Giro was very important. Getting so much support from the public, above all, was crucial and I went from not knowing [after the crash] what I was doing there to getting some very valuable wins," he says. "But I was surprised at how well I went in the Tour, too, finishing so close to the podium."
Landa had thought the Tour did not suit him, because he did not appreciate the "high level of tension there, and I'm maybe one of those riders who tends to switch off and disconnect on certain days. But I'd like to go back there to confirm what I've done this year.
"Why deny it? I do want to go back and do the Tour. But let's see what the Giro looks like too."
Nor, Landa says, is there any kind of tension between himself and Quintana. "The atmosphere in the team has helped us enormously, and this week we've talked a lot about all sorts of stuff except cycling, which has helped us to get to know one another, and that's important.
"At the moment I've got room to manoeuvre. Nairo knows what his objectives are, and if we end up both doing the Tour, that'll make for a stronger team, and if we don't, then each fighting for separate races, we can also do well."
Landa's first race of 2018, he says, will be the Vuelta a Andalucia. What he does afterwards, though, remains an unknown for now. But the Tour continues to circulate in his head, and in particular missing out on the podium this year by one second.
"At the time I wasn't bothered," he says, "but when it gets to the winter and you start adding on the kilos [in weight] and realise how hard it is to hit your good form, you do reflect on it. I regret it more now than I did in July." But next summer, he may well have the chance to set the record straight, and he says, perhaps get a chance to take on his former team leader, Chris Froome. "At some point down the line," he says, "this year or next, we'll end up facing one another."
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