Two mountain stages, two attacks, two minutes gained. The path of Mikel Landa's Giro d'Italia has hardly run smoothly to this point, but all of a sudden, he is beating a direct track towards the upper reaches of the overall classification after he picked up another minute and a half on Primoz Roglic and Vincenzo Nibali by placing third on the summit finish at Ceresole Reale on stage 13.
Landa came home third on the stage, 1:20 behind winner Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) but some 1:37 ahead of Roglic and Nibali. The two favourites for overall victory had eyes only for another on the Colle del Nivolet, and they marked one another tightly as the final climb progressed rather than commit to pursuing Landa, who attacked forcefully at the base of the ascent. They seemed oblivious, or perhaps simply indifferent, to the fire that they were leaving unattended further up the mountainside.
"From the car, they told me that the gap was around a minute and a half," Landa said on cresting the summit. "Together with the half minute gained at Pinerolo, I have to be happy, especially because I saw my rivals a little weaker and more accessible, which gives morale going forward."
There were still some 17 kilometres of climbing remaining when Landa launched his first acceleration from the dwindling group of overall favourites. Andrey Zeits (Astana) tried to smother that spark, but when Landa kicked again, he found himself with the freedom of the Colle del Nivolet.
While Nibali and Roglic engaged in their private duel behind, Landa was focused only on the road ahead of him, where his Movistar teammates Hector Carretero and Andrey Amador dropped back in turn from the day's early break to help with the pace-making. On the final, snow-banked approach towards the finish, Landa was left to his own devices, but he continued to pick up time on his rivals behind.
In the overall standings, Landa moves up to 8th overall, 5:08 behind the surely ephemeral maglia rosa Jan Polanc (UAE Team Emirates), but he is now just 2:43 down on Roglic and less than a minute off Nibali. On Monday's rest day, Landa had suggested that he might take a back seat to teammate Richard Carapaz (now 6th overall at 4:22). At Ceresole Reale on Friday, the maglia rosa was back in his sights.
"Yes, although from the beginning it was complicated by the time I lost in the time trials and the enormous strength of my opponents," Landa said. "A lot of us want to win, and only one can be crowned as the winner of the Giro on the last day."
There is something of Pedro Delgado's 1989 Tour de France about Landa's Giro to this point. Thirty years ago, Perico's yellow jersey challenge was seemingly over after a calamitous opening that saw him miss his start time in the prologue and then concede heavily in the team time trial. Once the race hits the Pyrenees, however, Delgado was incessantly on the attack, dramatically hauling himself back into contention. His fightback would only stall in the final days, and he had to settle for place third in Paris behind Greg Lemond and Laurent Fignon.
After losing time in a crash on the run-in to Frascati on stage 4 and delivering lacklustre displays in the time trials that bookended the Giro's opening week, Landa has responded in a similar manner as Delgado, attacking with abandon in an attempt to recoup his earlier losses. He vowed to continue in the same vein in the week ahead, come what may.
"I'll continue to attack for as long my legs hold," Landa said. "I hope my energy holds until Verona, but it's too soon to speak. The Giro can change easily from one stage to another, and I must go from day to day. But I'm drawing confidence from good performances, and I will continue in this way, no doubt about it."
The sheer volume of mountains stages from here to Verona offers a surfeit of opportunities for Landa's particular brand of attacking. The terrible beauty of the final week, however, is that its extreme difficulty is a double-edged sword for a rider who expends his energy so freely. Landa, however, might have reasoned he had nothing left to lose.
"We have another opportunity on the way to Mont Blanc," Landa said of Saturday's demanding leg over the Colle San Carlo to Courmayeur. He will continue to roll the dice.
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