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Part 3: Riding With Landa in the Basque Country

Words/Images: James Startt

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“Who needs Monaco?” Mikel Landa shouts out as he passes by with friends as they approach the Puerto de Orduña, an impressive climb in the heart of the Spanish Basque Country. Landa, of course, is the preeminent Basque cyclist in activity and his late-race challenge for the podium, not to mention his inspired #FreeLanda campaign, made him one of the great revelations of the 2017 Tour de France. But despite his increasing star status, Landa remains firmly attached to his Basque roots. And while he currently rides for Spain’s Movistar squad, he dreams of once again seeing a Basque team racing in the Tour de France.

Landa is a pure product of the Basque Country and its cycling heritage. Sure, he could move to tax-free Monaco like so many other top professional athletes. But instead he still lives and trains around the town of Mungia where he grew up and first started cycling. “Living here, close to my family and friends, is one of the best things for me as a professional,” he says. “I love this place for training. These are my roads.”

As a Basque rider, Landa grew up watching men like Iban Mayo and Samuel Sanchez carry the distinctive orange colors of the regional Euskaltel-Euskadi team into the Tour de France. Seeing a regional team battling cycling’s biggest stars on the sports biggest stage gave him a vision of whom he could be. And although Euskaltel is no longer on the UCI WorldTour, Landa is playing an active role to revitalize the team.

Last year, during the Tour de France no less, Landa decided to get personally involved with the Fundación Euskadi, his old club, and shortly after the race he agreed to become the president of the Fundación.

Although he has continued to progress as a professional since Euskaltel-Euskadi left the WorldTour ranks back in 2013, Landa’s appreciation for what the team did for cycling in the region has only grown. “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,” he says. “I really want to help young riders have the same opportunity that I had several years ago.”

Starting out as an amateur team in 2008, the Fundación Euskadi was originally designed as a development outfit for the pro team and it was here that Landa got his first real break as an amateur. But this year it has taken UCI Continental status as it attempts to reintegrate the elite ranks.

The Fundación Euskadi could not hope for a better leader, as Landa can frequently ride with the many up-and-coming riders in the region, passing on his experience as a professional.

“He’s the boss!” says Peio Goikoetxea, one of the Fundación riders that met up with Landa for a day’s training ride around the region. “For guys like us it is an amazing opportunity be able to ride with a guy like Mikel. And it is also really great to be able to carry on the Euskadi tradition. We all remember the Euskaltel-Euskadi team and we are proud to still carry the team colors today.”

After meeting at Landa’s home, they decide to head toward Puerto de Orduña where one of the riders, Ibai Azurmendi, can do some specific climbing work. Rolling out of town, the group cruises through the lush countryside so typical of the Basque Country. Rain may be frequent in this corner of northern Spain, but so is the abundant vegetation. Almost instantly we are on remote narrow roads where the riders can talk easily as they roll along.

“You know Mikel is always sharing stories with us and he has really taught us to believe in ourselves,” says Goikoetxea. While Landa agrees that he tries to build their confidence, so that they can improve as riders and hopefully make it to the top tier of the sport, he also insists that he does not want them to lose perspective, and he constantly reminds them that cycling needs to remain fun. “They are still young. They have time to grow. I want them to fight for their dreams, sure, but more importantly I want them to enjoy the sport.”

Approaching the day’s main climb, Landa points out the road that leads up to a vast plateau at the summit. It is a road obviously he knows well, as the climb is an ideal testing ground. Azurmendi bolts away at the foot of the climb while Mikel hangs back with Goikoetxea. Compactly built, Azurmendi is a pure climber and has already had promising results in mountainous races like the Ronde de l’Isard. “We come here often,” he says. “It’s just the perfect climb.”

Nearing the top he waits for the others and they climb to the summit easily despite the glacial winds that hit them once the road is exposed. Meanwhile, they enjoy looking over the expansive valley below. Clearly this is a view they never tire of while out training. But then for these local riders, they are in the cradle of cycling. “This climb is really spectacular at the top,” Landa says. “There is just so much variety in this area. There are so many great rides here.”