Among the thick frames and muscular builds of the archetypal Classics ‘strongmen’, there was one rider who stood out like a sore thumb at the sign-on for E3 Harelbeke on Friday. Mikel Landa, the 60kg Basque climber, was in town for a baptism of fire on the cobbles ahead of the Tour de France.
Landa was in a playful mood ahead of the race as he explained he’d never raced over a cobblestone in his life. “Never, no.” In training? “No, never!”
With stage 9 of this year’s Tour covering 21.7 kilometres of cobbled roads, across 15 separate sectors usually reserved for Paris-Roubaix, Landa is one of many Tour de France contenders flying into Flanders this fortnight for a taste of pavé – even if the flatter, rougher sectors of northern France are a slightly different beast.
“We have an important stage during the Tour de France and I think it’s important to know how to take the best way on those roads,” Landa said before the start. “I’m not worried, I’m here to learn, and I’ll try to enjoy the day as much as possible.”
In the end, Landa finished the race in 86th place in the last group on the road, more than 14 minutes down on solo winner Niki Terpstra. That said, there were 80 riders who didn’t even finish the race.
“It was definitely a very different experience to what I’m used to. It was tough. I wouldn’t want to do it all the time, but I’m happy I got a taste of it,” Landa told Cyclingnews at the finish in Harelbeke.
The Spaniard was safely positioned in the peloton but hit the deck in the mass crash that decimated the race at the half-way mark. He suffered no serious injuries but from that point on he was resigned to sticking in a large group all the way to the finish.
“That crash messed things up a bit for me, and after that it was impossible to get back up anywhere near the front. But I was able to see how things work on the cobbles,” he said.
“I now know a bit more about how to take the best line on the cobblestones, and the right tyre pressure, and most of all I’ll remember how important positioning is. I’m happy I came – I needed to.”
Landa and Movistar are under no illusions as to how critical stage 9 will be in the context of the Tour. Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde will be flown in for Dwars dor Vlaanderen on Wednesday, and the trio will recon the actual Tour sectors themselves later this spring.
“It’s going to be very important. A new Tour is going to start after that stage, so it’s going to be very important,” said Landa. “It’s going to be a very very hard stage, you can lose a lot, so it will be important not to lose anything.”
As for comments from his team manager Eusebio Unzué that the cobbles don’t belong in the Tour, he added: “Every rider knows the route before the start and they have to decide if they like it or not. That’s how the roads are, that’s it.”
Landa will be in for a day of suffering and a scramble for survival on the pavé in July, but at least at Harelbeke he was able to take some pleasure from it.
“The cobbles, despite their difficulty, are actually beautiful,” he said. “The fans are there, up close, you go by on the narrow roads. The truth is it was a nice experience.”