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Tour de France

Can Froome count on Landa’s loyalty?

Mikel Landa says he'll be a loyal lieutenant to Chris Froome at the Tour, but the stage 12 finish called the Spaniards motives into question.

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TOULOUSE, France (VN) — Is Mikel Landa acting out the role Chris Froome played to Bradley Wiggins during the 2012 Tour de France?

After Thursday’s stunner in the Pyrénées, it might seem that way.

In an eerie replay of Peyragudes in 2012, when the emerging Froome challenged his team leader Wiggins, Landa looked like he was the stronger man.

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When the searing attacks came on the final steep ramp to the finish line, Landa had to make a split-second decision. A possible stage victory was up the road. The man he’s being paid to protect was behind.

Landa tried to play it both ways Thursday, and no one was happy with the outcome.

“If I was playing for the win, I would have been further up,” Landa told journalists at the line. “I don’t know if I would have won, but I would have been close.”

When the attacks came, Landa hesitated, then countered. The Basque all-rounder crossed the line fourth, five seconds behind winner Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale), just beyond the time bonuses. As Froome moved back, Landa moved up, from ninth to seventh, now 2:55 behind Fabio Aru (Astana).

So far in this Tour, Landa has played the good soldier. On Thursday, he was the strongest of a depleted “Fortress Froome” that’s showing some chinks. Landa was Sky’s last man leading to the brutal final ramp on Peyragudes, waiting for Froome to come around. Froome never did.

In the confusion of the moment, Landa counter-attacked, and tried to chase down rivals. In part, he aimed to chew up time bonuses to Froome’s rivals. The stage win was there, but it slipped away.

Even worse, Froome lost the yellow jersey.

“The last 200m turned into a sprint, and instead of losing time, I played for the victory, and didn’t even look back,” Landa said. “I tried to set-up Chris, and I didn’t see him, and he was a bit back.”

Some suggested that Landa should have stayed with Froome, but on such a steep finale so close to the line, it’s every man for himself.

TV cameras captured a post-stage scene of Sky sport director Nicolas Portal and Landa in a heated exchange outside the team bus. No words could be heard, but Portal downplayed any tension. Instead, he lauded Landa for his work.

“Everyone did a great job. Landa tried to take the bonuses,” Portal said. “Mikel was fantastic today. He tried to go for the stage victory for himself, and for the time bonuses.”

There are some striking parallels between Landa/Froome circa 2017 and Froome/Wiggins in 2012. Ambitious? Check. Strong? Yes. Loyal? We’ll see.

Landa is expected to leave Sky at the end of this season. After bursting into prominence in the 2015 Giro d’Italia riding for Astana, he was one of the most sought-after riders on the market. He settled on a big-money contract with Sky, knowing he’d work for Froome at the Tour. Illness derailed much of his 2016 season. A crash handicapped his hopes at the Giro this year.

Several teams have offered him contracts, but he’s intent on joining a team where he can ride as a protected team captain for a grand tour.

But so far he’s been loyal at the Tour. Just like Froome did in 2012, he will do all he can to help his captain win the yellow jersey, even if the optics don’t look that way.

“Froome has already won three Tours,” Landa said. “Even though we didn’t expect what happened today, it doesn’t change much. Now we will just have to attack.”