Mikel Landa has been here before, itching for freedom but hemmed in by team duties. The Basque is arguably the strongest climber on this Giro d’Italia but he finds himself cutting his cloth to fit the needs of his Movistar teammate, the maglia rosa Richard Carapaz.
On the 2015 Giro, Landa lit up the final week before his challenge unravelled when he was ordered to sacrifice his chances in favour of Astana teammate Fabio Aru. On the 2017 Tour de France, his aggression was reined in just as he was climbing more fluidly than his Team Sky leader Chris Froome.
‘Free Landa’ went the slogan, and Landa even dressed in prisoner’s garb for a Halloween party to hammer home the point. He duly transferred to Movistar in search of liberty at the end of that season, though the presence of Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde suggested that autonomy was by no means guaranteed in his new environment.
With neither Valverde nor Quintana on duty at this year’s Giro, Landa began the race as Movistar’s stated leader, but that status became more nebulous when he fell behind Carapaz during a trying opening week. Since Carapaz took hold of the pink jersey at the weekend, Landa has had to take up his chains all over again.
On the Mortirolo on Tuesday, Landa performed his supporting role perfectly, carefully pacing Carapaz on the mammoth climb. 24 hours later Anterselva, however, Landa opted to leave the race leader’s side on the final climb when he launched a blistering attack 3km from the finish.
In the process, he picked up 12 seconds on Carapaz and 19 on Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma). It leaves Landa in 4th place overall, 3:03 behind his teammate and now just 47 seconds off a podium place.
“I saw an opportunity,” Landa told reporters as he warmed down outside the Movistar team bus after the finish. “The group was stretched out and there was a bit of wind. I decided to go ahead a bit so the others wouldn’t have to work. More time is always welcome. Friday and even more so Saturday will be very hard stages. Anything can happen, but right now we are very united and very focused.”
In his post-stage press conference, Carapaz was careful to note that while the attack had not been planned, the team had signed off on a certain degree of freedom of movement, so long as Landa didn’t bring any dangermen – namely Nibali or Roglic – with him.
“It was improvised,” Landa said. “There was a bit of side-wind, and I saw that things opened up a bit, so I figured, why not?”
With eventual winner Nans Peters (AG2R La Mondiale) more than four minutes up the road, stage victory was already well out of reach when Landa split the pink jersey group. “It was for everything — it’s needed,” Landa said when asked why he had attacked. “There were two of us, right? And few teams have this numerical advantage, so when you have someone up ahead, you take advantage of the work of the others.”
In the overall standings, Carapaz now holds a buffer of 1:54 over Nibali and 2:16 over Roglic with four stages remaining. After Thursday’s flat leg to Santa Maria di Sala, the Giro has mountain stages to San Martino di Castrozza and Croce d’Aune ahead of the concluding time trial in Verona.
After Wednesday’s stage, Movistar manager Eusebio Unzué offered a rather nuanced response when asked which of his two riders was the stronger at this point in the Giro – the younger Carapaz, who placed 4th a year ago, or the more experienced Landa, who was signed amid much fanfare to win Grand Tours?
“I don’t think anybody has gifted Richard the lead that he has,” Unzué said. “In all the Grand Tours, some riders improve, others fall away, and others stay the same. For the moment, it’s clear that Richard is continuing on the same level. Mikel is the rider who has been improving with the arrival of the mountains, and I think he can keep getting better in this third week.”
For now, Landa is an insurance policy should Carapaz fail to last the pace. Until then, freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose. The trouble for Landa is that his teams always seem to have something very valuable to protect.