PAMPLONA, Spain (VN) — Mikel Landa and Nairo Quintana have buried the hatchet, at least for now.
After trading barbs in the media last month, the new Movistar teammates got to know each other during a team get-together last week. The ice seems to have thawed, for now.
In what will be one of the most talked-about storylines in 2018, the Quintana-Landa tandem seems to have gotten off to a good start. Both riders said the right things when they were expected to.
“He’s a very nice person, and very outgoing,” Quintana said Friday at a Movistar team camp event. “From outside, it might have seemed like there was a bad feeling between us, but that’s not the case. He’s now a teammate.”
“The welcome from Nairo was very nice,” Landa echoed. “I think we are going to be stronger together.”
Landa and Quintana could become a formidable pair if the feel-good vibrations carry over into the 2018 racing season. If they race together, their explosive firepower in the mountains might even be strong enough to seriously challenge Chris Froome and Team Sky’s grip on yellow.
Or it could unravel in one of the most spectacular inter-squad infighting since T-Mobile in 2005, or the famous LeMond-Hinault duel in 1986.
Either way, it’s going to be a wild ride next season.
Landa made it clear he chose Movistar from the numerous offers he had across the peloton because he wants to be a GC team leader. After chafing under his helper role at Team Sky, Movistar is allowing him the chance to choose his racing calendar, and Landa said it points toward one race.
“I want to race the Tour. I am not going to deny it,” Landa said. “First, we have to see what is best for me and the team. We’ll wait to see what how the Giro course is before making the final decision.”
Quintana also let it be known he wants to return to his typical level at the Tour, where he scored three consecutive podiums before stuttering into Paris last year with 12th.
“To win the Tour remains my dream,” Quintana said. “I’ve won the Giro, the Vuelta, and a lot of other stage races and one-day races. Winning the Tour is what drives me and motivates me.”
Despite the potential conflict of interests next July, Movistar boss Eusebio Unzué is thrilled to have Spain’s best rider in a generation under his wing. With the retirement of Alberto Contador, Landa is poised to emerge as Spain’s biggest star on two wheels. Landa proved loyal at Team Sky, but he wants to race to win at Movistar.
Unzué said racing calendars for 2018 are on hold until the team has a chance to study details of the Giro route. Landa might go to the Giro to try to win, or Unzué might end up sending him to the Tour as well.
“It might be a good thing for Nairo to share a bit of the weight of the Tour,” Unzué said. “It might seem like they are squabbling between themselves, but it’s not like that at all. They are both big leaders, and they both have big ambitions. And that’s good.”
But could Landa and Quintana honestly expect to share leadership at the Tour?
It appears that most of their respective racing seasons will not overlap, but Unzué gave a strong hint that not only Landa and Quintana could start the Tour, but Alejandro Valverde as well.
The idea of having all three of Movistar’s biggest leaders in the Tour has raised expectations, as well as provoked doubts. No one can reasonably expect all three to ride in unison, but having that much firepower in the Tour all at once could be a genius move.
It all depends on how well Quintana and Landa can get along.
“Nothing is off the table,” Unzué said. “We’ll wait to see what the Giro comes up with, but why not have all three at the Tour? It’s possible the Tour might be the first grand tour of the season for all three of them.”
During the team’s pre-season camp last week in northern Spain, Landa and Quintana finally got the chance to know each other face-to-face. They broke bread, quite literally, sharing meals, and even a few laughs when Landa dressed up like a prisoner, brandishing a “Free Landa” costume at a team welcome party for new riders.
Despite reports of behind-the-scenes grumbling this season, Quintana reaffirmed his mantra that he’s the team captain at Movistar for next summer’s Tour. He said Landa’s arrival will give the team an extra option when it comes to the decisive climbing stages in the Alps and Pyrénées.
“[The first contact] has been very good,” Quintana said. “We never had any problems before when we were rivals, now even less. We have a lot of leaders in Movistar, and each one has their spot. Before he was a rival, and now he is a teammate.”
Landa echoed that sentiment, saying that he enjoyed chatting with Quintana in an informal manner.
“We had never really talked that much,” Landa said. “We had a fun few days here. I cannot imagine there being any problem.”
One could argue, of course they’re going to say that. What they say privately and behind each other’s back, and how they race their bike, will be more telling.
The key will be how Quintana handles the arrival of an ambitious Landa. If the Colombian bristles, tension will ratchet up. So far, it seems like Quintana doesn’t want to create more strain now when the racing season is still months away.
Unzué said relations between Landa and Quintana are normal considering they are two well-paid, ambitious and relatively young GC captains who want to promote their agenda. The veteran manager, who’s handled plenty of star egos during his four-decade career, said his challenge is to manage the potentially explosive situation deftly, and use that capacity to the maximum, rather than have it blow up in his face.
“Nothing is out of the ordinary. Why isn’t Nairo going to ask why he won’t be the team leader? Of course he will,” Unzué said. “Just looking at the palmares, Nairo is only defending what he’s earned. He has the right say that. Mikel also has the ‘right’ that he is prepared to be liberated. After what he did at the Tour, Mikel deserves his chances to confirm that in the grand tours to be a protected captain. I believe that having Mikel at the side of Nairo and Valverde will only help of all them.”
Right now, Movistar has successfully lowered the temperature between Landa and Quintana. If Unzué can keep the egos below a boiling point, it might pay off handsomely down the road. Fireworks are guaranteed no matter what happens.