At least Mikel Landa could smile about it this time, even if it was a smile of quiet resignation. On the penultimate stage of the Giro d’Italia four years ago, the Basque rider crossed the finish line in Sestriere in tears after his Astana squad ordered him to desist from attacking so as to favour the podium prospects of teammate Fabio Aru.
On Saturday at Monte Avena, Landa was again balancing his ambitions with those of a Movistar teammate, but maglia rosa Richard Carapaz’s comfort on the Dolomite tappone was such that the team's focus in the finale shifted to trying to put two riders on the final podium in Verona. The Ecuadorian put in a generous shift on the finishing climb, helping Landa distance Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) while trying to tee him up for stage victory to boot.
"It was a big chance to win a stage as well, and Richard did me a great favour, but I just couldn’t finish it off," Landa said ruefully when he emerged from the anti-doping control near the finish.
Landa had to settle for second place on the stage, outsprinted by his fellow Basque Pello Bilbao (Astana), and while he did enough to move up to third place overall, he is only too aware that a buffer of 23 seconds over Roglič will hardly suffice in Sunday’s concluding time trial in Verona, a 17km test that takes in the climb of Torricelle.
"In theory, no, but we’ll see," Landa said when asked if he believed in his chances of standing alongside Carapaz on the podium in the Arena in Verona. "The truth is I finished right at the limit today, but we’ll fight to try to keep this third place. I hope so. I will give everything I have. I would have to say that Roglic is still the ‘virtual’ podium, but I will give everything I have."
Movistar’s brand managers won’t have been best pleased that Landa kept his jersey unzipped when he spoke to a television crew in the finishing straight atop Monte Avena, but it was the only, mild act of a defiance on Saturday from the rebel who ultimately follows orders.
Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) had pointedly described Landa as the best climber in the Giro ahead of Saturday’s tappone, and while Astana directeur sportif Giuseppe Martinelli vouched for his former rider’s obedience to instructions, it was not without a caveat: "He’s a good lad, but even good lads sometimes want something of their own."
Despite murmurings from the local press, however, there would be no tradimento here. Landa performed his duty on the Passo Manghen early on, pacing Carapaz across to Miguel Ángel López's attack near the summit, while Nibali and Roglič briefly struggled behind. After demonstrating their superiority over their challengers there, the Movistar pair later looked to exploit that pre-eminence to the full on the twin ascents of Croce d’Aune and Monte Avena.
With realistic threats on Carapaz’s maglia rosa long since faded, Landa was finally liberated to play his own hand, and he accelerated clear of the pink jersey group near the top of Croce d’Aune. Nibali scrambled down the descent in pursuit with Carapaz tucked safely on his wheel, and this trio pulled away from Roglič on the final ascent towards Monte Avena, eventually coming home 50 seconds up on the Slovenian. They caught the remnants of the early break on the approach to the finish, but Landa was beaten in the sprint by his fellow Basque Bilbao.
"We had the breakaway controlled in the last part, and we ramped up the speed with Richard and Nibali. The idea was to try to win the stage with me. I just couldn’t finish it off,” Landa said. “But it’s a nice compensation to finish off the Giro in this way with all the work of the team."
Landa’s career in the four years since that 2015 Giro with Astana has amounted to a vexed search for freedom. At Sky, his path to leadership was blocked by Froome and Geraint Thomas. On arriving at Movistar last year, he found himself vying for space with Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde.
With Valverde absent from this Giro through injury, Landa left Bologna as the undisputed leader of the Movistar squad, but after a disappointing opening week, he found himself superseded by his teammate Carapaz, who had, lest it be forgotten, placed 4th overall here last year. Landa began to scale the rankings rapidly once the race hit the Alps, but once Carapaz assumed the pink jersey in Courmayeur, a limit was placed on his ascent.
"I am 100 percent happy," Landa insisted. "Richard is going to win the Giro, and he’s a teammate, and he deserves it. We’ve had 11 days as race leader. It’s been a great Giro for the team. You can’t ask for more."