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Out of sick bay, Landa starts path to Giro pink

Mikel Landa has followed his big 2015 season with a delayed start to the year because of an illness.

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One of the top protagonists of 2015 has been one of the top disappearing acts of 2016. Mikel Landa, the Basque climber who was the revelation of the season, has yet to race since his high-profile move to Sky.

Landa, 26, will finally make his season debut in Sky colors at Italy’s Coppi e Bartali on March 24, nearly two months later than expected and his first race since the Giro di Lombardia last October.

That hasn’t stopped Sky from expecting big things from Landa at the Giro d’Italia, where he won two stages and finished third overall. Despite the hiccups, Sky is betting that Landa will be ready to challenge for the pink jersey.

“It’s not the perfect preparation, but he has a big engine,” Sky sport director Nicolas Portal told VeloNews. “Last year, he also had a bit of a late start, so maybe he can start the Giro not at 100 percent, and get much better for the end of the race.”

Landa’s planned debut in early February at the Volta a Valenciana was scuttled when he came down with a cold. Rather than rush his comeback, Sky pulled him out of the Ruta del Sol two weeks later as well.

This month’s major stage races — Paris-Nice and the Volta a Catalunya — are major goals for Sky’s top GC riders, with Geraint Thomas winning Paris-Nice and Chris Froome making his European debut at Catalunya with the goal of winning. That meant neither race was an ideal fit for Landa.

Instead, he will race in Italy and then start the Vuelta al País Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country) and the Giro del Trentino, with a likely start at Liège-Bastogne-Liège as well.

“It’s not the end of the world, and there is still time [before the Giro],” Portal said. “He has already been training [since] a few weeks ago, and I think the worst issue is behind him.”

As Portal mentioned, Landa was also late out of the start house last season, and didn’t start until Catalunya in late March before making a major impact in May. The stakes couldn’t be higher for Sky, however. With three yellow jerseys on its trophy shelf, the Giro has proven more elusive. Bradley Wiggins fell short in 2013, abandoning in the rain in the first half, and the wheels came off Richie Porte’s efforts in 2014 and 2015.

Sky signed Landa to give it a legitimate chance for the pink jersey, but since he’s fallen ill, the British outfit might have to go to “plan B.” Sergio Henao and Leopold Konig (sixth last year) could both step up, while Ian Boswell is also slated to start the Giro for the first time.