Bahrain-Merida leader Vincenzo Nibali will line-up for his 21st Grand Tour in Bologna this week, chasing a third victory and a place in the history book as the oldest rider to ever win the Corsa Rosa. Yet, numbers, records and accolades appear to mean little to the 34-year-old Sicilian, even if the Giro d'Italia could prove to be a watershed moment in his 15-year career.
Nibali insists that he's still hungry for success, still motivated to train and race hard, and still believes he's competitive. But the question remains: is Nibali still the same Grand Tour force of old? Or will the next few weeks and a generational change in the peloton cruelly expose him simply as old and past his best?
"Twenty-one? Really? They're starting to add up..." Nibali jokes dismissively during an exclusive interview when Cyclingnews points out just how many Grand Tours starting this year's Giro will add up to.
"Fortunately, I don't feel old and I still think I'm up for three weeks of hard racing. I've got a few extra wrinkles and a few grey hairs, but it's not time to put me out to grass just yet."
Nibali will turn 35 on November 14, and so could replace Fiorenzo Magni as the oldest ever Giro winner. He was expected to retire after the 2020 season, and a final shot at an Olympic gold medal at the road race in Tokyo, but in the midst of contract negotiations with Bahrain-Merida and his many other suitors, he's decided to race on, making 2021 his swansong season.
A request for a six-million-euro two-year deal and a breakdown in relations with senior management mean he is unlikely to stay at Bahrain-Merida, and a move to Trek-Segafredo is apparently all but done. The Italian coffee brand co-sponsor is ready to cover the extra costs of Nibali's salary and that of his entourage, so that Lo squalo dello stretto di Messina – 'The Messina-strait Shark' – ends his career in their red and black colours.
Performance often dips and riders can get distracted in a contract year, but Nibali's deep-rooted Sicilian pride seems to work differently, fuelling his determination and helping him perform even better to prove a point to whoever has lost faith in him.
He was locked in a war of words with Astana team manager Alexander Vinokourov when he won the 2014 Tour de France, and had already decided to leave Astana for Bahrain-Merida in 2016 when he won the Giro d'Italia for second time.
"If I win or lose the Giro, I don't think my status or value as a rider will change," Nibali argues calmly, perhaps sending a message to Bahrain-Merida management.
"Everyone knows my value as an athlete: that my rivals respect and still fear me. I think I've had a good career and I think people have always appreciated the way I race, so any results I achieve at the Giro will only further enrich my career and palmares. I think everyone knows I'm always at my best for the big goals, and that I'm always competitive and can finish on the final podium in a Grand Tour."
Going all out for the 2019 Giro d'Italia
Nibali has carefully prepared for the 2019 Giro d'Italia in recent months after his 2018 season was derailled during the Tour de France when a spectator's camera strap hooked his handlebars and caused him to crash hard on his back. He underwent percutaneous bilateral vertebroplasty surgery – the filling of his fractured vertebrae – to speed up his recovery so that he could ride the Vuelta a Espana and target the World Championships in Innsbruck.
The crash and surgery has left Nibali with a slightly different position on the bike, which needs regular work from expert chiropractor Gianluca Caretta, but he took extra time off during the winter to make a full recovery and worked hard in the gym during the winter to strengthen his core muscles. He now insists that he's pain-free and still hungry for success.
"I was behind where I wanted to be at the start of the season after recovering during the winter, but then things came around in March and have got better and better," Nibali explains.
"I recovered well after Tirreno-Adriatico, and got in the final attack and felt good at Milan-San Remo, even if I couldn't pull off another win. I then headed to altitude a little earlier than usual in April so that I could work well and be ahead of things for the start of the Giro.
"I didn't ride the Giro last year, and I missed the affection and support of the tifosi, so it's great to be back and going for the maglia rosa," he says.
Nibali showed off his form at the recent Tour of Alps, attacking on each of the four stages, duelling with Team Sky's Pavel Sivakov and Tao Geoghegan Hart, and finishing third overall. He failed to take a moral-boosting stage victory but was upbeat even if he has not won a race since Milan-San Remo in March 2018.
"My form seems good, and so that's reassuring as the days count down to the start," Nibali says.
"The Giro starts with the time trial up to San Luca [in Bologna], which will be important for the time gaps and first overall classification that it creates. Things settle down after that, and then there's a tough final week, with several long, high mountain stages. It's going to be important to be on form, but it will also be important to carefully dose our efforts across the three weeks."
Nibali's longtime coach Paolo Slongo explained to Cyclingnews how he tweaked Nibali's pre-Giro training so that he would be physically and psychologically close to his best at the Tour of the Alps. They worked differently at altitude, adding more speed work in the final block, and came down from altitude a little earlier to help his adaption. Eleven days of training included 48 hours in the saddle, 1,337km of training and almost 30,000m of climbing.
"I'm happy with Vincenzo's form. We've put into practice what we'd planned," Slongo says.
"Sometimes Vincenzo suffers with all the expectation that naturally weighs on his shoulders as the big-name Italian rider in his home Grand Tour. This time he's more confident, and so more relaxed. He knows he's on form and on track for the Giro. He also knows that he can go even better after a final block of work before the Giro starts next Saturday."
Time trials could be key
Nibali is not a fan of reconnaissance rides of key stages, preferring to take each Grand Tour day-by-day. But Slongo and Bahrain-Merida have studied the route of this year's Giro and know what to expect. The 21 stages include 59.8km of individual time trials, but race director Mauro Vegni has also included lots of terrain that suits Nibali's naturally aggressive and instinctive style of racing.
"I think the route has been carefully designed to inspire a great race," Slongo suggests.
"The time trials perhaps favour the likes of Primoz Roglic [Jumbo-Visma] and Tom Dumoulin [Team Sunweb], but the final week includes lots of climbing, and so lots of terrain where the better climbers can attack and try to pull back any time lost. We hope that's how Vincenzo will perform. We're used to having to fight back and pull back time; that suits Vincenzo's style. There are a lot of climbs over 2,000 metres and he usually goes well at altitude, so we're optimistic."
At the 2017 Giro, when Dumoulin won ahead of Movistar's Nairo Quintana and Nibali, the podium places were separated by just 40 seconds. Although not a fan of time trials, Nibali knows that every second counts. He spent time in the wind tunnel in the spring, with Bahrain-Merida looking at every detail of the discipline with the help of new performance director David Bailey. They have also made him two custom aero handlebars, similar to those used by Lotto Soudal's Victor Campenaerts for his recent Hour Record: one raised six centimetres from his usual position, for the opening time trial to San Luca, so that he can climb in an aero position for longer, and another for the San Marino time trial.
"The time trials will play a significant part in the race, but they're especially critical because they're not simple, flat time trials. They're hilly and technical, where you have to ride well to avoid losing time," Nibali points out, sharing his route analysis.
"The San Luca time trial is technical, and the final part of the climb is so steep that it might even be best to change bikes and use a road bike. The San Marino time trial starts on wide, flat roads but then climbs all the way to the finish. The mountain stages are mixed with other difficult stages, which might not look too complex or dangerous on paper, but can often prove to be very important, where you can gain or lose chunks of time. In recent years, the Giro route has always given the climbers and strongest riders a chance to pull back any time lost.
"That's why we've seen some great racing at the Giro," he continues. "There have been my comeback and successes in 2013 and 2016, but also Chris Froome's attack and solo win on the Colle delle Finestre last year. That's what's magical about the Giro, but it's also what makes it so difficult. You never know what's going to happen in the final stages. This year, it's likely that the final winner will only be decided in the final time trial to Verona."
Racing on instinct and experience
Like Peter Sagan in the Classics, Nibali prefers to follow his own instincts and experience than race off the tactics of another team. He has often lamented the power-meter controlled pace setting of Team Sky – now Team Ineos – and envied their strength in depth, but has never been afraid to go on the attack to take control of his own destiny. His three Grand Tour victories, his five Giro d'Italia podium finishes and 13 top-10 results indicate he knows what he's doing, whatever the competition.
This year, Nibali's biggest rivals include Dumoulin, Roglic, Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) and Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana), plus a host of outsiders and promising young talents looking to emerge. The absence of Movistar's Alejandro Valverde will give Mikel Landa more freedom, while the young Ineos trio of Sivakov, Geoghegan Hart and Ivan Sosa will try turn the loss of leader Egan Bernal to injury into a personal opportunity.
All of this year's contenders have different strengths and weaknesses, and so could influence the Giro in different ways. Nibali appears to have studied them all and reached his own conclusions.
"Simon Yates has impressed me the most. He's matured and improved after last year's Giro d'Italia, and proved it by winning the Vuelta a Espana," Nibali says, putting the Briton at the top of his list.
"Roglic has been strong all season and was also strong at the Tour de France, but then seemed to fade in the final week. I recall he wasn't great in the final time trial, and so that could happen again, especially if the Giro becomes a hard race. Dumoulin is a big threat, but might suffer in the high, steep mountains; let's hope so because, like Roglic, he's got the final time trial to his advantage."
Nibali respects his rivals but still believes in his own chances of victory, even as he enters the twilight of his successful Grand Tour career.
"Everyone has shown weakness in the past, including me, but perhaps they've worked on them and become stronger, or perhaps they're not at their best this year. We'll soon find out," he says, clearly keen to start racing.
"I'll be trying to win a third Giro d'Italia, but it won't be easy. It never is. The Giro is going to be a real fight this year, but that's why I love it. That's what I love about Grand Tour racing."