Mikel Landa could not be happier. He has just bought an Orbea Orca, just like the one he had when he first turned professional with the Euskaltel-Euskadi team in 2011. For Landa, it is a prized acquisition to his burgeoning personal bike collection. For while, as one of the world’s top professionals, he rides only the most state-of-the-art machines, he simply loves bikes, often riding one of his vintage machines on a rest day around his home in Mugía in the heart of his native Basque Country. It is clear, as we spent a day with the 28-year-old Tour de France hopeful, that his Basque roots remain close to his heart. He still lives and trains around the town where he grew up and counts his very first teammates from the local cycling club among his best friends. And even last year while he was scrapping for a spot on the Tour de France podium, he was busy negotiating his new role as director of the Fundación Euskadi, the club that gave him his first chance to become a professional—an opportunity he hopes to pass on to many other young riders from this region.
Words/Images: James Startt
PELOTON Magazine: Mikel, you are one of the top pros in the peloton today and obviously very attached to your roots in the Basque Country. In addition to cycling, I believe you were a passionate pelota player when you were growing up. I’ve met a lot of cyclists that played football or ran track and field or skied. But I have never met a pelota player. What is it about that sport that attracts you?
Mikel Landa: It is definitely one of the biggest sports in the Basque Country, right up there with soccer and cycling. It’s just a beautiful sport, especially when you see it live. It is a very fast sport, but also just beautiful. I love the sounds, hearing that ball hitting the wall in the court. I only played one year, really. And I understood early on that I had more potential as a cyclist. But I still love to watch it.
PELOTON: How did you get into cycling?
Landa: Well, I grew up here in this village. Mugía is a small village but not so small, and riding a bike was just the best way to get around. I just loved the freedom that cycling offered. You know, when you are young, you always need your parents to take you places, but suddenly with the bike, I could go off on my own. Pretty soon, I wasn’t just riding over to my friend’s house, but I was riding over to the next village. In addition, there is a cycling club in our village, the Club Ciclista Zuyano. And when I was 13 or 14 I joined the club and decided to start racing.
PELOTON: At face value, pelota and cycling seem very different. One is in a closed space, the other out in the open air. But are there any similarities? Are there ever moments in a race where it reminds you of something from pelota?
Landa: I don’t know…perhaps instinct. Pelota is very fast and it teaches you to make critical decisions in a split second. In cycling, there are some relaxed moments early in the race. But there is always a crucial moment and you have to be perfectly positioned and ready to react instantly. It’s not always easy to make the right decision when your heart rate is beating at 180 bpm.
PELOTON: Do you remember your first bike?
Landa: Well, my first bike was a mountain bike. And then, a year after being in the club, I really wanted a better road bike. My road bike was really heavy, still had down-tube shifters and all. I was really getting into the sport and I wanted something more modern. I remember going to the bike shop and I just fell in love with an Orbea Mitis. It was so beautiful. It was an aluminum frame with a carbon fork and rear triangle, and it came with Campagnolo Veloce components. Already my parents could see that I was serious about cycling, so they got it for me.
PELOTON: Did success come easily?
Landa: Oh no. I was born in December you know. And as a result, I often lacked the physical maturity of some of the other kids. I was always good in the climbs, but I suffered a lot on the flats and in the pack. I didn’t win my first race for two years, until I was 16. But in those first two years, I often finished last. But it didn’t really matter, because I made friends with everyone on the team, and they are still today my best friends. There were eight of us and we were all friends. Our parents became friends too, so after the races we would often meet and have a meal together. That’s what kept me in cycling in the early years. Then, when I was a junior, I started catching up physically, and by my second year as a junior I was one of the best riders in the Basque Country.
PELOTON: When did you start to think that you could maybe make a career out of cycling and become a professional?
Landa: Oh, if I am completely honest, I would say not until I actually turned professional, and maybe not even until my second year as a professional. Once I started winning races, the Fundación Euskadi started showing interest in me. They gave me a new bike, an Orbea Onix, an all-carbon bike, as well as a training program. They also did some testing on me and really supported me. I started studying architecture at the university but at one moment I needed to make a decision. I was winning a lot of races by this point and after two years as a senior with the Fundación Euskadi team, they offered me a professional contract.
PELOTON: Even though the Euskadi team no longer exists as a World Tour team, you seem very attached to Basque cycling and, of course, the Fundación Euskadi, a program that you are still very involved with?
Landa: Yeah, I am perhaps even more attached to it today than when I was younger, because I have the maturity to look back and see what an important role it played for me and for others in the region. They taught me how to be a professional. It was really amazing what they did, you know. For a team from a small region of Spain to have one of the best professional teams in the world, well that was just incredible.
PELOTON: And now you are president of the Fundación. How did that happen?
Landa: Well, I always stayed in touch with the organization. But in the last years they were really struggling. And then last year, during the Tour de France, they told me that the Fundación was going to stop. And I just said to myself, “That’s impossible!” So I talked to Miguel Madariaga [the Fundación president since 1994], and we worked out an arrangement for me to take over the team. Miguel was happy to know that the Fundación, and as a product of the Fundación, it was important for me to see it continue.
PELOTON: This was during the Tour de France?
PELOTON: You are in the middle of the world’s biggest bike race, with a chance to win no doubt, and yet you are spending your time trying to figure out a way to save the Fundación? That’s just sort of amazing!
Landa: Yeah, two days after the Tour, I met with Miguel and after about 30 minutes we came to an arrangement. Actually it was good for me to have something besides the race to think about during the Tour.
PELOTON: Now you are president of the Fundación. Where do want to take it? Do you have a dream for the Fundación?
Landa: My dream is to see the Fundación back in the Tour de France. But I know how difficult that can be, and I have to focus on my own professional career. So for the moment I really want to help young riders have the same opportunity that I had several years ago.
PELOTON: I’m sitting with you here in Mugía, not far from where you grew up. You have developed into one of the biggest pro riders in the peloton today but, unlike so many, you haven’t left and moved to Andorra or Monaco. Why?
Landa: Living here, close to my family and friends, is one of the best things for me as a professional. I love this place for training. These are my roads. Okay, maybe the weather is not always the best, but I can throw my bike in the car and go to Bilbao and train closer to sea level where it is warmer. Or I can go towards the Rioja or Burgos regions, where it is often drier. And of course we do training camps in the south of Spain with the team in the winter.
PELOTON: Last year, you were one of the big revelations in the Tour de France. I mean, you were working for Chris Froome during the whole race and you nearly finished on the podium yourself, missing it by only one second. Were you surprised with your performance?
Landa: Yes, I’d have to say that I was a bit surprised. I had already ridden the Giro d’Italia and I just didn’t know how strong I would be in the last week. I didn’t have a great start to the season, but I just got stronger it seemed. I recovered well from the Giro, and arrived at the Tour pretty fresh.
PELOTON: Some thought you actually could win the race. Did you ever think that you could win the Tour?
Landa: To be honest, I never thought about that. From the beginning of the Tour, I was there to work for Chris. And although I raced well, the other leaders were never focused on me, because I was there for Chris.
PELOTON: Until this year, you have had some great rides in the grand tours, but always in the role of a teammate. But with signing with Movistar, you now are a co-leader. Did it take you a long time to understand that you too could be a leader?
Landa: Well, when I started out at Euskaltel-Euskadi I never thought about it. Being a team leader is firstly about your legs. If you have the legs, a team will get behind you. So, first of all, I had to show that I had the legs to lead a team. But now I understand that I can be a leader. And I want to have my chance, to have my own opportunities. I have the maturity to be a leader.
PELOTON: Well, you had good schooling, as you have worked with some great riders. What did you learn working with Vincenzo Nibali?
Landa: From Nibali? It is tricky with Vincenzo, because he is definitely one of my favorite riders. But he is also one of the most dangerous riders and I am afraid of him. He is just so hard to control. I didn’t actually race that much with him at Astana, but he impressed me. He is always so calm.
PELOTON: How about Fabio Aru?
Landa: Never to give up. Fabio has bad days but he always fights back. He never gives up.
PELOTON: And from Chris Froome?
Landa: The way he manages his efforts in a big Tour. He and the Sky team just do an amazing job of managing a huge race like the Tour.
PELOTON: And have you had a chance to ride and race with your new teammates, Alejandro Valverde or Nairo Quintana?
Landa: Well, yes, with Valverde we spent about two weeks together in the classics. And since you don’t race every day in the classics, we had some time to get to know each other. You know, what is so amazing is that, although he is 38, he still has the enthusiasm of a neo-pro. And he is always so relaxed. He is a special person. He just has so much fun riding a bike. He is never stressed. It doesn’t matter if he wins or loses. He’s just happy to be on a bike.
PELOTON: Well, between Nibali the master tactician, Aru who never gives up, Froome who manages racing perfectly and Valverde who always has fun, you have the makings of the most-well balanced team leader in cycling!
Landa: Well, we’ll see! Let’s hope!