The Movistar team are adamant that Mikel Landa’s rollercoaster career can now take an upturn once again in the Giro d’Italia, the race where Landa staged his breakthrough as a Grand Tour racer back in 2015. Longstanding manager Eusebio Unzue insisted in Movistar’s pre-race press conference on Friday that Landa was in the best ever form he’s seen him prior to a Grand Tour.
The Giro d’Italia has been something of a microcosm of Landa's complex Grand Tour experiences In 2015, he took third overall and back-to-back stages, and often looked as if he could topple Alberto Contador from the leader’s spot, had he not been hamstrung by internal team politics in Astana. Then in what became his trademark 'yo-yo' style as misfortune set in, in 2016, having abandoned ill mid-Giro in a sudden downturn of his physical condition, in 2017 he crashed badly on the Blockhaus stage but bounced back to take a stage win and the king of the mountains jersey.
Having skipped the Giro d’Italia in search of a top result in the Tour de France in 2018, Landa now returns to try and put what has been 18 very uneven, crash-and-injury-ridden months at Movistar on the right track again.
"I love this race," Landa said by way of an opening reply in his pre-Giro press conference on Friday. "And hopefully it’ll bring me a bit of luck."
Unzue was notably enthusiastic in the same conference about his somewhat erratic protege, who has taken over the mantle of sole leader in the Giro d’Italia following the last minute withdrawal of world champion Alejandro Valverde, due to injuries in a training crash.
"There’s a part of Valverde which will be impossible to replace," Unzue recognised, "and maybe’s there’s been something about being the world champion which he’s finding hard to digest, having taken such a long time to attain that title. But hopefully, this short spell will help him return to top form soon."
As for Landa, Unzue argued that "I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mikel in such good shape as he is in the build-up to this year’s Giro. The one thing I think he needs not to have in order to succeed is bad luck.
"That’s the only thing that’s come between us and seeing the great Mikel that we have been hoping to see for so long."
Landa was certainly confident in his pre-Giro press conference, although he refused to name himself as a single, standout contender for pink in the way Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) had done so just an hour before when sitting in the same press room.
"I’m a favourite, not the favourite," Landa insisted. "I'm not saying it’s just me," he said.
Landa’s pre-Giro form has certainly boded well, with a seventh place in Liege-Bastogne-Liege followed by a second place, alongside Richard Carapaz, in the Vuelta a Asturias’ most difficult stage last weekend.
Carapaz won the race overall, whilst Landa abandoned with a painful toe injury on the final stage, this latest setback adding a final layer to the aura of mystery hanging over Landa as to what the Basque can actually achieve when luck and good form are both on his side at the same time.
Whilst teammate Carapaz barely took questions in the Movistar press conference, beyond uttering a few predictable phrases about his form being good and how his team work would not limit his own ambitions, Carapaz actually has a better recent track record in the Giro than Landa, taking fourth overall last year as well as a stage win.
"I’m here with the aim of winning and wearing the leader’s jersey in the last week," Landa recently told Spanish sports daily AS. "Then we’ll see if in fact I should try and go for the podium or for stages or whatever. I’ve already had to adapt in 2017 when we [he and Geraint Thomas -ed] got knocked off by that motorbike on the road to the Blockhaus, but then I got a win and the king of the mountains jersey. I learned a lot that year, above all never to give up."
If Landa’s determination despite the setbacks has been one of his trademarks, so have been his team changes. The restless Basque has had no less than five teams in the last decade starting with one year in Orbea , then three in Euskadi [2011-2013], two in Astana [2014-15] two in Team Sky [2016-17] and now two in Movistar [2018-2019].
As to whether he continues to switch teams again, possibly to Bahrain-Merida, in 2020, or stay with Movistar, Landa kicked the can down the road until after the Giro d’Italia, telling AS "we’ll decide about that afterwards."
For the moment, Landa is looking to see what he can achieve in Italy. And given his rollercoaster last two years, after injuries, illnesses and a real mixed bag of results, that is surely enough for the Basque to be focussing on for now.
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