"Is he the leader?" Mikel Landa asked as he pulled the tab on a can of Fanta past the finish in Courmayeur. The Basque had just placed fifth on stage 14 of the Giro d'Italia, and his most pressing concern on crossing the line had been to find a Movistar soigneur amid the mass of television crews and team personnel swarming around the finish area. There was no time just yet to start calculating the overall standings.
Landa knew already that Richard Carapaz had claimed stage victory but it was only when he had found a small oasis of calm near a crash barrier that he realised his teammate had also built up enough of a buffer to take hold of the maglia rosa, seven seconds clear of Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma). A microphone was thrust in Landa’s direction and he offered an off-the-peg response: “For us, the important thing is that the team wins, whether it’s with me or someone else.”
Barely a week ago, the Giro seemed to have been reduced to a two-way battle between Roglic and Vincezo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), but three days into the race’s belated entry into the mountains, Movistar have manoeuvred their way into contention.
Landa’s aggression on stages 12 and 13 saw him scrub away some of his early losses, while Carapaz has now picked up almost four minutes in two days. By winning his second stage of this Giro, Carapaz also became the first Ecuadorian to wear the pink jersey. Landa, who came home with the chasers, 1:54 down, now lies in 5th overall, 2:50 behind his teammate.
The Colle San Carlo was the main obstacle in Saturday’s 131km leg from Saint-Vincent, and it was the scene of a number of probing attacks from Nibali and Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana). On each occasion, only Roglic, Landa and Carapaz could follow before the pace relented once more and the front group swelled again.
"When we were on the San Carlo, I looked closely at my rivals and I could see they weren’t going especially well," Carapaz said. "I knew Nibali and Roglic were watching each other. I was looking for the right moment to see how they’d respond. I knew the category 3 climb to the finish would suit me. I was looking for the stage win and now I’ve ended up with the pink jersey too."
A little over 2km from the summit, Carapaz played his hand. He accelerated crisply, opened a sizeable gap and simply kept on going, not to be seen again until he was on the podium draped in pink. He had 30 seconds in hand at the summit, held his margin on the descent and then expanded it rapidly when Nibali, Roglic et al began to watch one another on the climb to the finish in Courmayeur.
"We had two cards to play, with Mikel and me. I knew that we were both in good form, and we could both go the stage," Carapaz said. "Landa used up a lot of energy in the break the last two days, so our plans developed during the stage. Mikel wasn’t going as well today, and I saw the Giro was at stake. I knew I could attack and go for the stage."
Not afraid of Verona time trial
An impressive fourth overall on his Giro debut a year ago, Carapaz warmed up for the 2019 edition in precisely the same way, by winning the Vuelta a Asturias. Already a stage winner in Frascati in the opening week, Carapaz would hold a more commanding lead atop the overall standings were it not for the 46 seconds he lost when he was caught up in a crash on the road to Orbetello on stage 3.
In the finale, Roglic gave the impression that he was more than happy to allow Carapaz to shoulder the burden of wearing the maglia rosa for the coming days, but one wonders if he will later rue allowing such leeway to a rider who is so at ease in the high mountains and who dealt so well with the rigours of the Giro’s demanding third week a year ago. Roglic might expect to beat Carapaz comfortably in the final time trial in Verona, but there is a litany of mountain passes to be recited before the Arena rears into view.
"There are lots of teams interested in jersey, and Roglic and Nibali are the leading candidates," Carapaz said. "But we’re calm. Our team is strong, and we’ll try to defend as jersey as long as we can. The mountains ahead will be good for us. I’m not afraid of Verona time trial. I’m well prepared, and we’ll take this jersey as far as we can go."
It remains to be seen, meanwhile, whether Carapaz’s tenure in the pink jersey will curb the attacking instincts that had served Landa so well on the Giro’s first two days in the mountains. The man who left Team Sky for Movistar in search of freedom risks finding himself hemmed all over again. For now, at least, Carapaz is the leader.
Before taking his leave of the finish area, Landa was asked about his amical fist bump with his former teammate Nibali early in the stage, after the slew of attacks on the first climb had abated. "There is no strategy between you two?" he was asked. Landa responded with a joke: "Not yet."