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Landa follows script but wonders what might have been

Mikel Landa (Sky) was finally given a chance to spread his wings in this Tour de France, but he was still on a tether.

On the upper flanks of one of the most iconic climbs in the Tour in stage 18, Landa was set free, but with a very strict flight plan. He could only try to win the stage if Chris Froome’s GC position remained unthreatened.

“It was a planned move,” Landa told reporters at the line. “We wanted to set it up so either Froome or I won the stage. We were going for everything: the stage, the podium, and to widen the gap on GC.”

Team Sky wanted it all on the Col d’Izoard, the last mountain of the 2017 Tour.

First of all, it aimed to secure what’s likely to be a fourth yellow jersey for Froome by crushing the opposition. Second, its riders were racing for the stage win. Ideally Froome would break his winless streak. Landa was a second option. And finally, Sky tried to position Landa for the final podium with Froome in Paris on Sunday.

Overall, the team’s efforts missed the mark. The victory escaped Froome. Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and Rigoberto Urán (Cannondale-Drapac) remain too close for comfort on GC.

As for Landa? The threat he presented to the other GC rivals meant everyone chased him down. Now fourth, he’s still more than one minute out of third.

The Paris podium is so close, yet so far away.

“It almost looks impossible,” Landa said of the podium. “I am more than a minute behind two very strong riders. I won’t give up the fight. I am curious how I will perform in the time trial in Marseille. I moved up one spot on GC ahead of [Fabio] Aru, so why not dream?”

The 27-year-old will leave this Tour wondering what could have been.

In the most decisive climbing stages, Landa looked stronger than Froome. Many wondered if Landa would break rank, go rogue, and attack his team leader. Three-time Tour champion Greg LeMond even suggested as much in an interview with Reuters.

The Basque climber remained loyal to the end in this Tour.

“My dilemma is to be caught between what the fans want, and what I have to do,” Landa told the Spanish daily AS. “I knew that coming into the Tour, but it’s still hard to believe there is not a ‘prize’ in it for me … but we have to be happy with the way things turned out. Froomey is first and I am fourth with three days to go.”

Even though this Tour is not yet over, the future is very much on his mind. He will leave Sky at the end of 2017 — most likely heading to Movistar, according to the rumor mill. He wants a leadership role in the future.

His 2017 season was marked with setbacks and triumphs. An early crash at the Giro d’Italia derailed his GC ambitions, but he bounced back to win a mountain stage and the best climber’s jersey.

And during this Tour, he rode loyally at Froome’s flank, emerging as a future yellow jersey contender.

Froome didn’t balk when someone asked him if Landa could come back to be a rival at the Tour.

“I wouldn’t argue with that,” Froome said. “He has the engine to be there with the best in the world. He has it to contest for the overall victory in the future.”

With three stages to go, Landa will do his part to help Froome win the Tour. Saturday’s time trial presents one long-shot opportunity to reach the podium.

There are no more mountains in this Tour. Landa is a rider who does his best hunting in the steeps. But next year, it could be Froome vs. Landa.

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