A large part of Mikel Landa’s appeal is based on his habitual Houdini act at the Grand Tours. Typically, some misfortune or other binds the Basque’s chances in chains early in the race, and he then proceeds to grapple furiously to break free. On occasion, Landa has gone as far as locating the key, but he has never yet managed to turn the lock.
Those attempted remontadas linger in the memory but Landa’s mark on the roll of honour is faint. Before this Giro d’Italia began, his palmarès counted just one podium finish from 16 Grand Tour starts, a meagre return for one of the most entertaining riders of the past decade.
As this Giro enters its third week, however, Landa sits in rather unfamiliar terrain, less than a minute off the maglia rosa. The Bahrain Victorious rider has skirted with disaster on a couple of occasions, including when he crashed on the road to the Blockhaus on stage 9, but no great act of escapology is required to win this race in Verona. Thus far, Landa has had perhaps the clearest run of his career to date.
“We’re in the third week, we’re a minute down on the pink jersey and I think it’s gone as expected so far,” Landa said when he met the press during a brief online conference during Monday’s final rest day in Salò.
The biggest setback of Landa’s Giro to date came on the tumultuous stage 14 around Turin, when he conceded 36 seconds to Jai Hindley (Bora-Hansgrohe), Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana Qazaqstan). The performance left him fourth overall, 59 seconds off Carapaz’s maglia rosa, but a complicated afternoon could so easily have careered into calamity.
Landa’s teammate Pello Bilbao – sixth at 1:52 – summed up the situation neatly after he had helped his leader limit his losses by the banks of the Po. “The only thought when Carapaz attacked was not to lose the Giro today. We’re still in the fight for the third week,” Bilbao said, a viewpoint roughly echoed by Landa on Monday.
“Saturday was a very hard stage, but it wasn’t a course for me. I think the stages coming up are better suited to me,” said Landa, who was part of the 12-man selection forced by Hindley’s Bora-Hansgrohe team with 80km to go, but he was later put in difficulty by Carapaz’s rasping acceleration on the final ascent of Superga.
“The stage of Torino was very hard. I think nobody expected the pace that Bora put on the race, they rode super strong, and they made a big, big difference between the big contenders and all the other riders.”
Into the mountains
The Giro finally entered the Alps on Sunday’s stage to Cogne, though the run through the Valle d’Aosta failed to provoke any real frissons in the pink jersey group, save for João Almeida’s (UAE Team Emirates) annoyance at how Ineos conducted themselves in the sprint for the line.
“It wasn’t the most difficult for the pure climbers. The climb to the finish wasn’t the hardest and all of the leaders still had teammates to chase down attacks,” said Landa, who maintained that he would find altogether more amenable terrain in the days ahead. “Riding longer climbs, at high altitude and doing consecutive, very hard stages is going to be better for a rider like me.”
As per tradition, the race’s most arduous stages are packed into the final week, starting with stage 16, which brings the Giro to Aprica by way of Goletto di Cadino, the Passo del Mortriolo and the Valico di Santa Cristina. Landa was the stage winner on the Giro’s last visit to Aprica in 2015, when the race also climbed the Mortirolo, albeit from the harder, Mazzo di Valtellina side rather than this year’s approach from Edolo. Three years ago, meanwhile, Landa played a key supporting role on the Mortirolo for his then teammate Carapaz.
“The Aprica stage is going to be super hard,” Landa said. “The Santa Cristina is a very steep climb, and after 5,000m of climbing it’s going to be even harder for sure. My experiences of the Mortirolo have always been good. I have good memories of Aprica and Mortirolo, so that’s an extra motivation.”
Landa highlighted Tuesday’s run over the Mortirolo and Saturday’s tappone to the Marmolada as the two most demanding stages on the Giro, but he warned that the entire third week was replete with difficulties. On Wednesday, the race tackles the Passo del Vetriolo and Monterovere, while the sortie into Slovenia on stage 19 features the wickedly tough Kolovrat.
“I think this week could have a lot of surprises,” Landa said. “Any day could turn the GC around because there are consecutive hard stages where you can make a difference, and you could have a great performance from a rider on a certain day. I think it will be an interesting week.”
Landa begins the third week of the Giro with three younger riders ahead of him on the overall standings, namely Carapaz, Hindley and Almeida. “I’ve ridden more Giros than them, and maybe my experience – good and bad – is a difference between us,” he said.
For better or for worse, Landa will add to that treasury of experience in the days ahead. For once, he hits the final act of a Grand Tour with a manageable deficit and with the terrain in which to recoup it. With Landa, just about anything is possible. Same as it ever was.
“I would like to be on the podium,” he said when asked about his ambitions. “As high as possible.”
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