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Spain's Mikel Landa will line up for the 2016 Giro d'Italia on Friday as one of the favourites after placing third and winning two mountain stages in 2015. However, he has not forgotten who he is racing for over the next three weeks. He says a win in the race would be one for Team Sky, which is lining up without any British riders in its nine-man team, and for Great Britain.
Landa looked stronger at times last year than his team Astana leader Fabio Aru. The team had to pull him in to keep Aru in the fight with Alberto Contador, but it did let him free to win stages to Madonna di Campiglio and Aprica. He also placed third overall behind winner Contador and Aru.
Sky, so impressed, signed him to be its leader and hope to win the Italian grand tour finally after winning the Tour de France over the border three times already. The race starts in the Dutch city of Apeldoorn on Friday, where the British super-team relies not on one British rider, but on 26-year-old Landa to carry its flag.
"It's not the same [without a British team-mate] because we are riding in a British team, but it's the way it is," Landa told Cycling Weekly.
"A win here is for Great Britain, for Sky. The team is British, it's not only the riders, it's the staff and the helpers. It's a national project, not just one rider."
Landa looks to Ian Boswell, Philip Deignan, Christian Knees, Sebastian Henao, David López, Nicolas Roche and Elia Viviani for support. At the last minute, Sky called in Mikel Nieve to support him in the mountains after it pulled Sergio Henao over biological passport issues.
General Manager David Brailsford aimed over the winter to make a serious effort for the Giro d'Italia this May. After winning the Tour three times, first with Bradley Wiggins and then twice with Chris Froome, he explained that he wants to send a true A-team to take the Italian title. With the Irish to Spanish mix, the team would be doing so strictly on foreign power.
"We won our first monument, Liège-Bastogne-Liège last month, it's time to win the first Giro d'Italia," said Italian Sports Director Dario Cioni, who was born to an Italian father and British mother in England. "It would be a British win, many of the staff are British. The team is British, that's the first thing.
"The goal was to win the Tour with a British rider in the first five years, but we didn't ever set off with the goal of just having a 100 per cent British team. There was always a foreign element in the team with Colombians, Australians, Italians, Spaniards... The structure is British, but the team is not completely British. We are just trying to take the best team possible to the races, sometimes that means with a Brit, but sometimes there isn't one.
"We have Brits in the team, but their calendar is more concentrated on the Tour de France. So with that and the Tour of California [this month], we didn't have the possibility to have one here. We were thinking about bringing Pete Kennaugh along at the start of the season, but he decided early on to concentrate on the shorter stage races and the Tour of California became a better opportunity for him."
Not just Sky, but the other teams left their Brits to concentrate on other things. Alex Dowsett was due to support Alejandro Valverde in Spanish team Movistar, but he needed time to recover after having a plate removed from his collarbone at the last minute. Mark Cavendish is focused on the Tour de France with team Dimension Data and making the British track team for the Olympic Games - he will race in the Tour of California.
It is the second year in a row there are no British riders in the Giro's 198-man line up. The 2015 edition was the first in 16 years, since 1999, that a Brit did not participate.
Landa should make the British WorldTour team proud. He just raced and won the Giro del Trentino against his number one Giro adversary Vincenzo Nibali (Astana).
"I had a chance to get the know the riders around me [since signing for Sky], to know the riders who would come with me to the Giro d'Italia, but not much more than that has change to be honest," Landa said in the press conference later.
"The rest has just been the same, making sure I am in form for the appointment.”
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