Mikel Landa (Movistar) has moved into attack mode in his first race of the season at the Ruta del Sol, moving into second overall behind Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) on brutally steep final ascent during stage 4.
Landa was in the thick of the action on stage 2 to the Alto de Allanadas summit finish on Thursday, and after that major confidence boost, on Saturday he decided to try his luck from further out on the climb.
"It was very tough. I wanted to start from the bottom because I saw on Allanadas that I had good climbing legs," he said afterwards.
Although the ascent to Alcala de Gazules hilltop centre was much shorter than the Allanadas climb, its combination of cobbles and gradients of 15 per cent made it a very tough test - and Landa's result all the more impressive. The peloton of favourites shattered behind as Landa and Wellens went clear, with riders finishing in a broken single line, gasping for breadth and swaying from the effort as they reached the summit.
So whilst the Belgian could finally drop the Basque, Landa's second place, seven seconds clear of Jakob Fugslang (Astana), was ample confirmation that he has started the season in excellent shape. Movistar, in fact, have all three of their leaders in top shape, as Alejandro Valverde showed in the Volta a Valencia and Nairo Quintana in the Oro y Paz stage race in Colombia.
Landa's one regret, and it was not a small one, was that he could not take the victory. But he recognised he had been outgunned by a rider with a greater skill set, too, for the cobbled ascents.
"Wellens is better than me on this kind of climb. I suffered on the cobbles; he took the whole climb sitting down," Landa said afterwards. "Right at the end, I ran out of gas."
Landa recognised the lungburstingly steep gradients bore certain similarities to the ultra-hard Alto de Aia ascent in the Basque Country, where he won his career breakthrough stage victory four years ago. But although this time round his attack could not end in a victory, the Movistar racer said that he was "pleased with how things went overall. I wanted to finish off the great work that [teammates Marc] Soler and Andrey [Amador] had done earlier in the stage."
There is, of course, one more stage left at the Ruta, but given it is a 14 kilometre time trial, Landa will almost certainly be in damage limitation mode there. Second overall at seven seconds behind Wellens, Landa's time trialing has been uneven in the past, and his objective on the Ruta's final stage, he said, "is to end the race as well as I can. There will be a lot of really good specialists there, but I’ll fight all the way to the final metre."