After a series of setbacks, Mikel Landa finally made his long-awaited start to the season last week at the Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali, marking an important step on the road to the Giro d'Italia.
The Spaniard has had a string of false starts this year, sidestepping the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana to work on his time trialliing before being ruled out of the Ruta del Sol through illness and being left out of the Team Sky squad for Tirreno-Adriatico. With other top names already accruing race days and victories, Landa admits the situation was weighing on his mind and, though he was 11th overall and some way off his best shape at the four-stage race, he was simply relieved to get back into the flow of competition, put the doubts to bed, and enable himself to look forward to the Giro in May.
"I hadn't raced in a long time. The truth is that I went in with no objective. I went in with quite a few doubts that were holding me back, but returning to competition makes you forget about everything and you see your true level," he said after the race. "All sportspeople want to compete and the challenge I have ahead of me is something that motivates me. Not being able to enjoy it and tackle it was generating more stress for me.
"My sensations were good. When the race became complicated I was there, so I've come away happy. Doing the race has given me a lot of confidence, although given the circumstances I went into it without any real aim – just to enjoy it, to feel like a racer once again. That's the important thing, and I think I managed it. Now I can think about the Giro with more confidence than before."
Next up for Landa is the GP Miguel Indurain on Saturday, followed by a much stiffer test and a much more important week of racing at the Vuelta al País Vasco, where the caliber of riders will be a couple of notches up from last week.
The 26-year-old won a stage on home soil last year and credits that with kickstarting a run of form that saw him shine so brightly at the Giro d'Italia. A repeat of that would be the dream scenario, given that his current progress rules out any real chance of a general classification bid.
"It's a race I really like and which was a real highlight for me last year. From that moment on it was an unforgettable season and it holds great memories for me," said Landa, whose goals will have to be balanced with those of Sergio Henao.
"The truth is that it's a pain that I'm not going into it in better shape because it's a great route for a climber, even more so with that mountain time trial at Arrate. Going for the overall is going to be tough because the other riders will have a level that I don't. It's going to be impossible, but I think I can be in the fight for a stage. I'll give everything to achieve it."
Despite his probable inability to contest overall honours, Landa is not overly concerned about his progress and is still confident he can arrive at the Giro in early May in the same shape as he did last year.
He took the opportunity while in Italy to reconnoitre a couple of the stages and will do so again when he races the Giro del Trentino – his final preparation race ahead of the corsa rosa.
"The setback I've had leaves me with no margin for experiments, so after Trentino I won't race any more," he said. "There won't even be any altitude; I prefer to play it safe – train at home, race, and do the basics in order to reach the Giro in the same shape as last year. I've taken the step of familiarizing myself with being in a race and that puts me at ease. From now on, if my form improves there will be no problem reaching the Giro like last year."