The long-confounded Basque climber is looking to turn years of potential into a podium finish at Spanish grand tour, and he has a Bahrain-Victorious squad crammed full of mountain men to help him convert.
“I’m really motivated for this Vuelta. I have hardly raced all year and I have a score to settle after the Giro,” Landa told Spanish media this week.
“After Burgos, my goal has to be to do well overall. I’m looking for a podium placing and a stage win.”
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This year’s Vuelta could be Landa’s best chance at a top grand tour result in years. But things have a habit of going wrong for a rider often found on the wrong side of a lucky break.
Landa lost time early in last year’s Tour in echelons and had to claw it back in the mountains to secure sixth-place. He looked one of the best at this year’s Giro before a massive crash curtailed his race.
But for now, luck seems to be on Landa’s side.
The 31-year-old’s return to competition after breaking his collarbone and ribs at the Giro came good almost immediately. Just last week, Landa bettered Vuelta rivals Egan Bernal, Hugh Carthy, and Romain Bardet in winning the Vuelta a Burgos with a blazing move on the final summit finish.
After years of being elbowed into the role of domestique at Astana and Team Sky and a string of near-misses with Movistar and team Bahrain, the climb-filled route and a power-packed team stack all the chips in Landa’s favor ahead of the 2021 Vuelta a España.
Attacking sensation Mark Padun, Giro d’Italia podium finisher Damiano Caruso, and top climbers Jack Haig, Gino Mäder and Wout Poels are all set to line up behind Landa at Bahrain-Victorious. It’s an artillery that could outshoot Ineos Grenadiers and Jumbo-Visma should things go their way.
But the world has a habit of conspiring against Landa, and this year’s perilous Vuelta route could ensnare him from as early as the opening week.
The stage three summit finish to Picón Blanco will see Landa on home territory, particularly since he raced over it on the way to Burgos victory last week. The windswept fourth, fifth, and eighth stages look set to blow any poorly positioned climber’s Vuelta into the hedgerow, however.
The disaster-prone Landa and his team of climbers will have to be on high alert.
“I’ll be cautious. I’m still not in top form. I think I’ll catch up on my condition as the race goes on,” Landa said of his long layoff since the Giro this spring. “I’ll try to hold on in the first week and then see how competitive I can be from the second onwards.”
The final stage time trial – some 31km against the clock in Spain’s rugged northwest – could also be a problem. Landa is likely to lose time against a stack of his GC rivals even on his best of days, and a decision to ditch the TT bike through summer may not have served as the best preparation.
“Since the Giro crash I’ve only been out on the TT bike at most twice. I’d be happier with an easier final day through Santiago,” he said. “But I’ll have to bear in mind that on that day I could lose some time.”
One other question hanging over Landa’s head is his team’s priorities and whether Landa will get the support he needs when he needs it most.
Padun is one of the revelations of the season after two stage wins at the Critérium du Dauhpiné and third overall in Burgos. Mäder has two WorldTour stage wins in the bag already this season and will be looking for more. Rising Aussie GC-guy Haig and Italian veteran Caruso could lead the team in their own right. And the team is giving them all their chances.
“We have a strong lineup where every rider is capable of winning a stage at this race,” said sport director Gorazd Štangelj. “So while we will be protecting Mikel and support him during every stage, we will be opportunistic with stages that give our team opportunities to go for stage wins.”
A perilous first week, a final day time trial, a team with almost too much ambition, and the small matter of Primož Roglič, Egan Bernal and Richard Carapaz.
This year’s Vuelta a España could be Landa’s best chance yet at punching his ticket to the top of a grand tour. But it sure won’t come easy.