In 2013 a scientific study discovered that the scruffy, unloved inmates of dog shelters were more likely to get adopted, more quickly, if they could perfect sad puppy-dog eyes. It’s hardly a surprise – dogs have evolved to ‘weaponise’ faces that tug on our primitive emotional heartstrings – but apparently the eye trick was even more effective than tail wagging and quickly running over to a potential new human.
And so to Mikel Landa, the Basque climber whose sad eyes and thick, upward inflected eyebrows seem glued in a state of perpetual melancholia even when deep in the throes of an attack in the mountains.
Once more, those eyes won’t look upon a Grand Tour winner’s trophy after 21 days of racing. The man whose hopes were so high going into the 2021 Vuelta a España, having won the Vuelta a Burgos, saw those same hopes dashed when he dropped out of the back of the bunch of contenders on the Alto de Velefique on stage nine. His 23rd place on the stage wasn’t bad, but in the context of his bid for overall victory it was terminal.Image: Getty
Landa struggles as much as he succeeds. He’s capable of brilliance and capable of disappointment. He’s very good at climbing but really not very good at time-trialling. Sometimes he crashes, like in this year’s Giro when he also looked on top form. Sometimes he comes up against intra-team rivalries. Sometimes his confidence is a bit low. Sometimes the sensations just aren’t good. Three Giro stages, one Vuelta stage and a handful of Grand Tour top fives in Italy and France at the age of 31; one must conclude that one of the most gifted yet enigmatic riders in pro cycling has never really made it click. *Sighs*.
Perhaps the canine features are why fans are drawn to Landa. Mikel, this was your big chance but you tried your best. 13/10 would totally console. Or perhaps not.
Albert Rabadan, writing in Rouleur’s daily Vuelta newsletter, quoted Spanish newspaper correspondent Carlos Arribas when he tried to define why Landa holds a special place in the hearts of his nation’s fans. It’s down to landismo, a celebration of the naïve, the sentimental, and the sweet masochism derived from picturing what could have been “but which bad luck prevented from happening.”
Landa, probably unwittingly, weaponises cycling’s love for a plucky loser. The most famous antecedent is Poupou, Raymond Poulidor, who had the pleasure of coming up against Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx during his career. He never won the Tour, never even wore its yellow jersey, but Poupou was popular than both, especially in France, although apparently, behind that cuddly façade, Poupou played a mean game of cards.
All fans are naturally drawn to any long-distance breakaway artist who gets caught metres before the line. France now admires Thibaut Pinot as much for his tearful efforts and adherence to doing things his own way as much as for the occasions he has crossed a finish line before anybody else.
Pinot, a fan favourite
Flawed heroes who met premature ends seem to resonate in modern Italy, where Marco Pantani remains deified amongst tifosi and the sepia shadow of Fausto Coppi lingers long and low over the mountains of the Giro. Brits certainly enjoy wallowing around in a mire of self-deprecating humour and the inevitability of defeat, although less so with cyclists who, when compared to Tim Henman and the England football team, have been rather successful.
In Spain there’s an easy comparison with Cervantes’ Don Quixote, a romantic and somewhat rhetorical knight who inspires pity, empathy and stoic belief in lost causes. Landismo is nothing if not quixotic. A shimmering Luis Ocaña breached the walls of Castle Merckx in the 1971 Tour de France but then, to see this metaphor out, caught dysentery. The photograph of Ocaña screaming out in pain after crashing out of the race on the descent of the Col de Menté could easily be one of Goya’s dark, soupy oil works and remains one of the most powerful and enduring images of the sport.
In the end, our lives aren’t one relentless conveyor belt of success. Our lives are full of ups and downs, bad luck and disappointment, and things we just can’t explain. Sport holds a mirror to reality and we’re all more like Mikel Landa than we are Miguel Indurain. When Landa wins, we love it. When he loses, we love it even more.