Life as a professional cyclist has rarely been straightforward for Mikel Landa, and the latest wrinkle in the cloth for the Basque star is that, while clearly settling in well at his new Bahrain McLaren team, and despite good early form, the fall-out from a training crash over a month back continues to trouble him.
The bulk of Landa’s off-season training program had gone well until February when he was hit by a car when out training, fracturing a rib. According to Spanish newspaper Mundo Deportivo, the driver tested positive for alcohol and cocaine after being arrested.
Despite the injury and missing out on a number of training rides as a result, Landa made a highly promising debut in the Vuelta a Andalucia three weeks later, finishing third overall in what was by far the hardest early season stage race on the European calendar.
A podium finish in Andalucia was his best ever season start and effectively confirmed that his move to Bahrain McLaren was working out satisfactorily. On top of that, shortly after Andalucia, it emerged that the Euskadi team - which Landa saved from financial extinction three years ago - would be sponsored by the Euskaltel phone company. As a result, Euskadi’s links back to the renowned Euskaltel-Euskadi squad that provided a focal point of support and local two-wheeled pride for Basque cycling fans for nearly 20 years before it folded back in 2013, had sprung back into life.
But, while the return of Euskaltel represents a major boost to the sport long-term in the Basque Country, in the short-term Landa’s own return to racing is proving trickier than expected thanks to the knock-on effects of that early February injury,
"My rib is still hurting and the truth is it’s taking me a long time to recover from it," Landa told Cyclingnews earlier this week.
"My only option is patience. I took a fortnight off after Andalucia to see if I recovered, and I started training again today [Monday]. Rib injuries are always tricky. I broke some ribs a couple of years ago and that was a slow recovery process as well. It could take another week, it could take more, but it’s a question of training as best you can, planning it around what the pain lets you do."
In Andalucia he said: "My form was really good. I’d trained well in January. But because of the injury, I was struggling to exploit that to the full". It was something that became clear as soon as the first stage, where Landa was able to make some strong attacks on the key final climb, but could not respond when race leader Jakob Fuglsang (Astana ProTeam) moved away on the steeper ramp to the finish.
Landa is mulling over the idea of returning to Catalunya a possible option - assuming the race has not been affected - "but I’m not creating a strict deadline, it’s better to take things day-by-day."
Away from the bike, Landa is very satisfied that the project with the Euskadi team has taken on a new lease of life with the return of Euskatel to cycling.
"For the last three years, I’ve been trying to build the team up little by little and this is great news."
The new sponsor will be back on the team’s jersey in time for the Basque Country’s home race, the Itzulia, although, as for trying to get in the Vuelta a España this year, Landa added: "It’s difficult, there aren’t many wildcards this year, but we’d like to be there."
'Delighted' to be at Bahrain McLaren
As for Landa himself in 2020, the objectives are clear: win a race before getting to the Tour de France.
"I don’t win a lot so any win will do," he says with a wry laugh.
"I’d have liked to have been in Paris-Nice, because with the form I’ve got, I could have done something. My idea was to be up there in the Itzulia fighting for the win, but now we’ll have to see how I get over this injury first. It’s taking me a lot of time to get over."
Mid-term to long-term, Landa is delighted with how things are working out in Bahrain McLaren.
"It’s going really well," he says. "It’s a well-structured, ambitious team with a great atmosphere. I’m delighted to be part of it."
He has noticed that he is now the sole leader for GC races - an option that has eluded him, for various reasons, in all his previous teams.
"From the moment I joined. They asked me what I needed, what riders I needed and I can feel that I can count on their full support. That’s great."
As part of that renewed drive to up his game generally, over the winter Landa has been working a great deal with the team on his time trialling position, with the idea of "finding an ideal position aerodynamically and then strengthening my performance around that. So far, it's gone well."
Tour de France
Landa’s clearest link in his current squad to his previous teams is arguably Rod Ellingworth, previously head of performance at Team Sky and now Bahrain McLaren’s general manager. The Briton has insisted in several interviews that Landa has not reached his full potential results-wise, as well as pointing out that the Tour’s exceptionally rugged route in 2020 suits Landa well.
Landa agrees about the Tour, although with some reservations. "I’d have liked the mountains to have been more concentrated in the third week, which is when I tend to be at my strongest, but I have to say it’s a good for me overall.
"There’s only one time trial, and it’s a very hard one, which is good for me. And for any climber it’s great that there’s so much climbing. That said, with the mountains kicking in so early, to be successful this summer, you’ll have to manage your efforts really well over a three-week period rather than focusing too hard on one particular section of the race. That’ll be the key to winning."
Landa has a reputation for being an unpredictable rider, and he likes to say he races more on impulse than through coldly calculating his chances of success. But last year, despite the crashes and injuries at the Giro d’Italia, it all but went unnoticed. Landa was the only rider to take a top 10 on GC in both the Italian Grand Tour, where he finished fourth, and in the Tour de France, where - despite the lack of clarity in the Movistar ‘tri-leader’ strategy - he finished sixth.
"A result like that, doing so well in two Grand Tours back-to-back, does give me a lot of confidence. Sometimes we look too much at the winners in races, without observing there are riders who also do very well but that don’t get the same amount of attention," he reflects.
Of the 2019 Giro and Tour, though, he’d be hard pushed to say in which he did better. "I started off the Giro very badly but then improved. In the Tour I started off very well, but then I went off the boil at the end. Half of each, maybe!"
And in 2020, he refuses, in any case, to put a limit on his ambitions on any race - including the Tour de France.
"I’m not the kind of rider who’d sign for a particular result before a race begins," Landa says.
"I’d like to fight for the win. I’m just hoping the Tour will be an open race and a good fight all the way through."