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Landa braces for best Tour opportunity of career

Basque talent is confident in himself and Team Bahrain-McLaren is confident in him ahead of Tour de France challenge.

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Mikel Landa will get his first-ever opportunity to take the reins as the undisputed leader of his Tour de France team this summer. And he’s not balking at the challenge.

The Basque climber will go into this summer’s Tour at the helm of the new-look Bahrain-McLaren team as he looks to battle those he worked for in seasons past for the yellow jersey. Team boss Rod Ellingworth told VeloNews this month he’s confident that “Mikel can win the Tour.” And perhaps more importantly, Landa has the confidence that he has the cojones and cool head to prove his boss correct.

“I feel more mature, both physically and mentally,” Landa told RTVE Thursday. “Every season that ends I say, ‘Damn… I think last season I did not know enough.’ I feel stronger, and it’s easier sometimes to take shape, to maintain it, and the truth is I’m really enjoying it.

“I’ve come to a new team that is giving me a great opportunity. I think I am at my best.”

Having raced four Tours de France and 13 grand tours through his career, Landa has the miles in his legs and the know-how of what’s required to win a three-week race. The Spaniard has often had to forgo his own ambitions as he played the last man in the mountains to Chris Froome, Richard Carapaz and Fabio Aru during their trips to grand tour glory, and has seen opportunities go down the drain as a result of Movistar’s malfunctioning Tour de France tactical strategies.

Landa’s Tour palmarès, which includes a fourth, sixth and seventh place, perfectly illustrates a frustrating string of near-misses and could-have-beens. It’s only now as he heads toward his fifth Grande Boucle appearance, that 30-year-old Landa will start the Tour confident he’s the head honcho in the team bus.

Landa played a key part in Richard Carapaz’s 2019 Giro victory. Photo: Getty Images

“I would like the initial approach to be to race to win, perhaps in a more conservative way,” Landa said. “I hope everything goes well and I can take advantage of the opportunity they [the team] are giving me. If they let me lead the team and I have a team that covers me in all moments, both in the good ones and in the difficult ones, I hope to be ahead.”

The timing of Landa’s rise to leadership comes well-timed, with an aggressive, Vuelta-esque Tour de France on tap this summer that is well-suited to his skill set. The climbs come thick and fast, and the time trial kilometers are sparse. With the first mountain ascents coming on stage 2, a summit finish as early as stage 4, and just one time trial – which finishes atop the gnarly Planches des Belles Filles no less, the Tour is made for the punchy climber, with time trial specialists such as Tom Dumoulin losing an ace from their sleeve.

“This year is particularly good for Mikel,” Ellingworth told VeloNews in a telephone interview. “It has a hard start, you’ve got a fairly early selection what with a mountaintop finish quite early on in the race, very little time trialing and so forth. It works well for him – purely as a climber, he’s one of the best in the world.”

With the Tour now two months away, much of the attention has been taken up by superteams Jumbo-Visma and Ineos, both boasting the luxury of three leaders. While the newly-powerful Bahrain-McLaren doesn’t have a trident to match, Ellingworth points out they have the firepower and experience to take Landa to the podium. With former Team Sky teammate Wout Poels as superdomestique, and the likes of Dylan Teuns, Pello Bilbao, and Damiano Caruso adding extra grinta, expect the orange jerseys of the Bahraini team to be mixing up with the reds and yellows of Ineos and Jumbo-Visma in the mountains this summer.

Landa and Poels rode together through two seasons at Team Sky. Photo: Getty Images

Landa and the Tour team will be heading for a two-week spell together in Andorra next week. As well as the benefits of the training in the thin air, the Basque feels the team bonding will be vital.

“It is important to know the group before any competition,” Landa said. “The more confidence you have in your colleagues, the easier it is, so it is good for us to get together now for 15 days.”

Landa will be joining a packed start sheet set to get their season rolling at the Vuelta a Burgos July 28, and is likely to start one-day race Clásico de Getxo the day after the five days in Burgos. He will then put the finishing touches on his Tour legs at the Critérium du Dauphiné, August 12 – 16. The 30-year-old is following a relatively light pre-Tour schedule with a view to hitting the Tour as fresh as he can be.

“From the first week, there are many nervous stages, so it is necessary to arrive very well,” he said. “You have to try to get in very good condition and last until the end.”

With a classification showdown possible as early as the seven-kilometer, seven percent climb to Orcières-Merlette on stage 4, it could be possible to see Landa jostling for the yellow jersey with the likes of Froome, Primoz Roglic and Egan Bernal from week one onward. Ellingworth is ready for the challenge.

“I think it could be between any of us, Ineos, Jumbo-Visma,” he said. “I think there’s some huge talent in all those teams and there’s a couple of other teams out there as well that will be super-competitive. At the end of the day, everyone can be beaten.”

While Ellingworth insists that the new-look Bahrain-McLaren is not a Team Ineos version 2.0, the experience he brings to the table having been involved in seven Tour de France victories with Sky/Ineos will be a boon should Landa find himself in the early reckoning. “The one thing I have learned is there’s a massive difference between leading a grand tour and knowing how to hold the lead, or just getting second, third or fourth – there’s a massive difference,” he said.

Ellingworth will add a wealth of grand tour winning experience to his new-look team. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

With the Tour now on the horizon, both Landa and Ellingworth will be hoping the timely coming together of a rider’s confidence in himself and a team giving full backing to its rider will see the Spaniard finally live up to the promise that has long lurked beneath the duties of a dutiful domestique.

“He started the season the best he’s ever started,” Ellingworth said of Landa’s podium placing at February’s Vuelta a Andalucia. “He’s certainly motivated. He looked brilliant. You know, you talk with the legs. He did that very well at the start of the season.

“He’s not flinched with the whole leadership situation. He’s at ease with the team and how it is going into the Tour. There’s no internal challenge, and that’s going to be unlike anything he’s ever experienced. Time will tell whether he takes it on or not.”