Relief was the overwhelming emotion for Vincenzo Nibali as he got his Giro d'Italia underway and made small but significant gains on his general classification rivals over the 9.8 kilometres that made up the opening time trial in Apeldoorn.
Nibali (Astana) clocked a time of 11:22 on the flat, fast course to finish 16th on the stage, 19 seconds behind winner Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin). Dumoulin emerged as a GC rider at last year's Vuelta a España but has repeatedly made clear that the overall is not on his agenda here, which leaves Nibali at the top of the pile after the opening rally.
The Italian put 21 seconds into last year's podium finisher Mikel Landa (Team Sky), and five seconds into last year's Tour de France third-place finisher Alejandro Valverde (Movistar). Rigoberto Urán was distanced by 14 seconds, Rafal Majka (Tinkoff) by 19, Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) by 13, and Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) by three. Andrey Amador, fourth at last year's Giro, was third on the stage and 13 seconds quicker than Nibali, but the Spaniard is set to spend most of his efforts this month working for Valverde.
Despite the drawing of first blood, Nibali was most happy simply that the Giro was underway, with the hype and pressure of the build-up making way for actual racing itself.
"Getting through this stage was very important," Nibali told reporters after crossing the line, admitting to feeling "a lot of pressure" ahead of this Giro.
The 31-year-old is widely regarded as the top favourite here, certainly in the eyes of Italians, with 'Nibali versus everyone' the headline plastered on the front page of La Gazzetta dello Sport on Friday morning. You sense that such talk has not been entirely welcome, with Nibali delivering a string of cagey and non-committal responses in Wednesday's pre-race press conference.
After getting his breath back from his time trial effort, it was as if a weight had been lifted.
"For now I can be more than satisfied, because before the race I felt a lot of pressure," he said.
"It's always a long wait before a Grand Tour actually gets to start, but I have got through this stage and it's good to get it started."
Nibali is a strong time triallist and, with rivals like Landa noticeably weaker in the discipline, every second accrued in the race's three time trials will be valuable. The cronoscalada on stage 15 might represent the most level playing field, while the rolling 37km stage 9 course offers the biggest potential for time gaps, but this opening stage was a good opportunity to take a few seconds while also making a show of strength.
"It was a very explosive time trial," said Nibali. "It was difficult to calculate my strength, and I had to really accelerate hard out of the corners. The first part was very fast, the second part was really one of force and you had to wear yourself out on those two very long straights.
"But I'm pleased," he added. "One stage down, now onto another."
Stage 1 Video Highlights
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