Three riders, three approaches, one objective. The Giro d’Italia may not be be until next May, but the shadow boxing for the maglia rosa has already begun.
In the past week, Vincenzo Nibali, Riccardo Riccò and Ivan Basso have begun their preparations for next season and taken the first tentative pedal strokes in their battle for the hearts and minds of the tifosi.
Nibali and Basso: the Liquigas leaders
Vincenzo Nibali is the only one of the trio certain to ride the Giro, and accordingly was already busily reconnoitring one of the key stages of the race. The Vuelta a España winner recently returned to his home in Sicily with the spoils of his Spanish campaign, but he also took the time to ride to the summit of Mount Etna, scene of stage 9 of next year’s Giro.
It was Nibali’s first time tackling the mighty volcano since an excursion up its barren slopes as a ten-year-old. After starting his day with a coffee in the sun at the Caffè Mocambo on the coast in Taormina, he made his way inland and wound his way to the top of Etna through dropping temperatures and rising winds.
While he was filled with pride at the idea of racing through his island’s stirring landscape, he was also careful to note some of the potential dangers posed by the stage, particularly the strong gusts on the exposed upper section of the climb.
“There could be wind and so there would be real difficulties,” he told Gazzetta dello Sport. “In terms of difficulty, it’s a four-star stage, but it will be a five-star spectacle.”
Meanwhile, 1400km north in Varese, Nibali’s Liquigas stable-mate Ivan Basso was also cranking back into action ahead of next season. The 2010 Giro winner has been making noises about focusing his energies on the Tour de France, and given his age and the possible absence of Alberto Contador, Basso may never have a better chance to wear the yellow jersey.
Nonetheless, the lure of a third victory in his home race may ultimately prove too much for the Lombard. In any case, Basso, who turns 33 at the end of the month, began his training for 2011 in low-key fashion, with a steady ride from his home in Cassano Magnano to the shores of Lake Maggiore. He remains tight-lipped on his precise programme for next season, but his plans to race earlier and more often in 2011 may be a sign that he wishes to be in form by the time the Giro starts in May.
Riccò loses the nickname and begins rehabilitating his image
Basso’s trainer is Aldo Sassi, and while the pair continue to work together closely, Riccardo Riccò (Vacansoleil) is also using the facilities of the Mapei Centre to fine-tune his build up to next season.
Riccò’s unsavoury reputation saw him sidelined from this year’s Giro, but beginning his collaboration with Aldo Sassi and the Mapei Centre in front of emissaries from Gazzetta dello Sport was a clear statement of his intentions to be welcomed back into the fold in 2011. Basso turned to Sassi to help rebuild his reputation after he served a suspension for his part in Operacion Puerto. The Liquigas man had confessed to what he called "attempted doping" under the supervision of Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes. By a similar token, Riccò returned from a two-year suspension for CERA use in March 2010.
After a day of testing in the centre in Castellanza, Riccò took to the road under Sassi’s watchful eye. Although slightly more corpulent than when he took victory at the Coppa Sabatini in September, the man from Modena still gave brief glimpses of his qualities on the climbs that punctuate the area.
Public relations exercise or not, Riccò’s partnership with Sassi appears to be another important step on the delicate path to a first ride in the Giro since 2008, the year of his positive test for CERA at the Tour de France. Before returning home to Emilia-Romagna, Riccò even took the time to assure Cyclingnews that “the Cobra is dead…”
There is a clearly lot of road to be travelled between now and the start of the Giro for the erstwhile Cobra, both on and off the bike. If his Vacansoleil team is conferred with ProTeam status for 2011, Riccò's route to Turin would certainly be facilitated considerably, but the man from Modena still has much to do in order to assuage the concerns that continue to surround him.
Nonetheless, Riccò is convinced that he will indeed be one of the protagonists at next year's Giro and so it was no coincidence that he was keen to try out the climb of the Cuvignone, Ivan Basso's primary test site. We may be all of six months from the beginning of real hostilities, but the opening shots of the battle for Giro d'Italia supremacy have already been sounded in the depths of winter.
View our gallery of the beginning of the Nibali, Basso and Riccò's 2011 preparations here.