When Geraint Thomas became the latest casualty of Team Sky's failed GC attempts at the Giro d'Italia, it forced the British team to reset its goals and ambitions for the Italian Grand Tour. With Thomas out of the race and Mikel Landa's GC bid extinguished, Sky reset set its sights on stage wins. The succeeded with Landa on stage 19 with the result also ensuring he finished inside the top-ten but the has was far less than expected when the race started in Sardinia.
With the third week of the race suited to the characteristics of Landa, the Spaniard became a regular feature in the breakaways as he attempted to salvage something from the race. After narrow losses in Bormio and Ortisei/St. Urlich, it appeared his luck had run out. Despite the near misses, Landa's breakaway attempts saw him take a substantial lead in the mountains classification as the blue jersey became a goal.
Sport director Dario Cioni explained that while Landa's breakthrough win in Piancavallo came when it was least expected, the victory ensured Sky could claim a minor battle victory despite losing the war.
"A stage win was an immediate goal and also there was a possibility of the mountains jersey. We really went all out for a stage win. We came away with third in Oropa, second in Bormio. It began to look like it wasn't to be, then we took second again! We knew we were close, but at least the mountains jersey was coming our way. Then finally we managed to finish it off, maybe on one of the stages we didn't expect it to happen, given how the racing had gone that day at the midway point. But Mikel was ready to take the opportunity when it arrived. He sealed the mountains jersey and won the stage in a day which was fantastic," Cioni said of the third week aims.
While Landa was the face of Sky's aggressive third week via his presence in breakaways and four top-three results, Cioni explained a strong team was equally important in allowing the Spaniard to chase stages and the KOM jersey.
"The other big thing was that, in every stage where Mikel was on the attack, he was really well supported by the team. He had team-mates driving the breaks he was in, and even though he had GC guys chasing him down, he had to fight hard to keep them away but he still managed it. In the stage he won Sebastian (Henao) was really really important in his success," said Cioni.
"Mikel, G and all the team members showed they had a really good physical condition to be right up there in the race. For sure if we'd been lucky enough to be in a leadership position or have the jersey, the team would have been able to support either G or Mikel in that role. At the end of the day all the riders have had their own chance in the race, as well as doing a great job to support the leaders.
Having lost Landa to illness at last year's Giro, David Lopez was the rider to salvage the 2016 Giro for Sky as he won a stage and the mountains classification. 12-months on, it was Landa rising to the occasion and matching the results of his Spanish compatriot.
Hitting the reset button
Sky's attempts at adding to its Tour de France success in May have largely been disastrous with Bradley Wiggins in 2013, Richie Porte in 2015, Mikel Landa in 2016 and Thomas this year a stark contrast to its four yellow jerseys since 2012. Coming into the 2017 Giro, Sky were backing in co-leaders Landa and Thomas and were confident in either of the duo claiming pink in Milan. However, the 'moto incident' en route to Blockhaus ended its aspirations with heavy time losses to the duo. In the accident, Thomas dislocated his shoulder but it would he his knee which forced an abandonment from the race. But not before he showed his form with second place in the Montefalco time trial.
"If we go back to the goals we had in Sardinia, what we've achieved in the end is pretty different. It wasn't the easiest run. The team performance was really shaped by the accident before Blockhaus. In one split second we had two GC contenders out of the game and most of the team on the ground," Cioni recounted of the accident caused by a police moto.
Since his abandon, Thomas has been confirmed for Sky's Tour de France team to be built around Chris Froome's bid for a third straight and fourth career yellow jersey. Landa could also return to the Tour after helping Froome to yellow last year, as he explained after his stage win. He also explained that if he skips the Tour and rides the Vuelta a Espana, "I'd love to win it".
After the misfortune and bad luck of the Giro, Sky and Cioni will be hoping to end the season with overall Tour and Vuelta wins and ensure it can look back on the Italian grand tour as the spring board to success. Rather than another missed opportunity