By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - Tipped as the next Spanish cycling great when Alberto Contador hangs up his racing bike, Mikel Landa is less than a month away from being given the stage to justify his billing.
When the Giro d'Italia begins in Apeldoorn, Netherlands, on May 6 and Landa rolls off the start ramp he will do so as team leader at a Grand Tour for the first time.
It will break new ground for the 26-year-old Basque who was third last year despite riding as a domestique for Astana's team leader Fabio Aru, who he also supported to victory in the Vuelta.
Offered the carrot of having a team built around him for the Giro by Team Sky boss Dave Brailsford, Landa jumped at the chance to become a team mate of double Tour de France champion Chris Froome.
"It was a very easy decision," Landa, slowly getting up to speed after a virus delayed his competitive race debut for his new employer, told Reuters at a recent training camp.
"Sky said they were years ago looking for me and they offered me the project to be the leader of the team.
"After last year I knew I could win a Grand Tour so now I have the opportunity and everything is focused on the Giro."
Question marks remain about Landa's time-trialling ability, and his fitness after a delayed start to the season, but he has already proven a match for anyone in the mountains.
He won the 15th stage of last year's Giro after attacking Contador on Madonna di Campiglio and out-lasting Aru.
Two days later he beat Contador again in the mountains, moving second overall.
Team protocol meant Landa waited for Aru on stage 20, having crested the final climb ahead, ending his chance of finishing in front of the Italian.
His frustrations boiled over at the Vuelta where Landa powered away, ignoring team orders, to humble Aru on stage 11.
A month later he switched to Sky where Brailsford believes his potential can be released.
"A Giro with Mikel is a great opportunity," Brailsford said. "We think his ability to perform is huge. Can he win the tour of Italy? Yes he can. He's got the ability to do it."
Brailsford is at pains not to lump any more pressure on the Spaniard though.
"That transition to a new team and expecting someone to perform at a really high level early on into a new term is a bit of a double whammy," he said.
"It's not a four-month goal. Our ambition with him is longer term."
Landa shrugs at the expectations placed on him but will be happy to follow in the wheel tracks of Contador.
"It's a big pressure, no? Spain has always had big riders until now but they are getting older. Spain needs a new rider and if they say that (about me) it's good but it's not going to be easy winning a Tour."
Getting used to the added spotlight and pressure that comes with being a team leader is another challenge.
"It must be clear who is the boss. In the Giro I worked for Aru, he was my leader, in the Vuelta also although it was not too clear at the beginning," said Landa, who won a stage of the Tour of the Basque country this month.
Tinkoff Saxo's Contador will not defend his Giro title, focusing instead on the Tour de France.
With Aru also targeting the Tour, Astana's Vincenzo Nibali and Spanish veteran Alejandro Valverde will start as two of the favorites for the Maglia Rosa, the Giro's pink jersey.
But with the considerable resources of Team Sky behind him, a podium place will be Landa's minimum target.
"The focus will be on supporting him and protecting through the flatter, mid-mountain stages, then, when it comes to the key stages, he can do his thing," Brailsford said.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Toby Davis)