Twenty-four hours after Vincenzo Nibali’s terrible day in the stage 15 mountain time trial at the Giro d’Italia the atmosphere in the Astana team was still sombre and downbeat, like the weather that had descended on the race forcing most riders to take to the rollers rather than go for a proper training ride.
The Astana team was staying in the mountain holiday town of Ortisei, in a hotel call Hell. Destiny has a funny way of combining with the events at the Giro d’Italia and Nibali has endured a hellish 24 hours. Two days ago, he was still firmly a contender for overall victory at the Giro d’Italia. After his disastrous time trial performance, however, he slipped to third and 2:51 down on race leader Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo).
Nibali did not shy away from speaking to the media soon after his time trial and had the courage to face the media again on the rest day. He took questions of every kind, most from the Italian media and tried to find some optimism and determination while also admitting that he only really has a chance of winning the Giro d’Italia if Kruijswijk cracks somewhere between the Dolomites and the finish in Turin next Sunday.
Nibali bravely faced the questions alone, with only Astana press officer Geoffrey Pizzorni at his side to decide the order of the questions from the 30 or so media that huddled round him and listened to his ever word. There was no sign of team manager Alexander Vinokourov, who was at the time trial, or directeur sportif Alexandre Shefer and Giuseppe Martinelli. They like to share in the glow of the limelight of success when Nibali wins but there was no moral support in times of defeat.
Nibali’s coach Paolo Slongo sat quietly and listened carefully from behind the huge fireplace that was a natural backdrop to the press conference. Slongo looked as defeated as Nibali.
“It’s going to be difficult now due to the lead that Kruijswijk has but we’re not giving up yet,” he said, trying to convince himself as much as the media that was quizzing him about what had happened.
Slongo knows every detail of Nibali’s physiology but had no explanation for his poor performance in the 10.8km mountain time trial.
“It was ‘una giornata no’ - a bad day,” he suggested.
“Vincenzo was about 20 watts lower than we expected him to be for the second week of the Giro d’Italia. The whole Astana staff, from the management, to the coaches, to the medical staff and the soigneur, none of us can understand why Vincenzo lost so much time. He performed at a much lower level than usual. If you look at Michele Scarponi, who finished fifth, that’s where Vincenzo should have been.
“I was following him in the team car and we immediately noticed he was suffering, even without looking at the times. His pedal stroke was heavier than usual, he never found his rhythm and that costs you a lot in a mountain time trial. Of course it can happen, it's all part of cycling. But if it happens on a flat stage, you can get through it. But if it happens on massively important stage like a mountain time trial, it’s the worst thing that can happen and there’s nowhere to hide.”
No doubt reflecting what was discussed often during Astana post stage de-briefs, Slongo admitted that they had made tactical mistakes, often racing too confidently and under estimating the strength of Kruijswijk and even Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge).
“Perhaps we’ve made mistakes, even attacking in the wrong moments but that’s also because we went for it, we put our necks on the line,” Slongo argued.
“Even on the big Dolomite stage we went on the attack on the Passo Valparola. Vincenzo made two big attacks and kept going when he realised that Valverde wasn’t there. Then the others attacked him and got away. That’s racing, you never know how other riders are feeling and so you end up being a little to generous and paying for it.”
Slongo denied that Nibali had spread his hopes and form across too many goals in 2016.
“We planned his season so that Vincenzo’s form would build gradually during the season, so that he’d be good for the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France and through to the Olympics,” he explained.
“He started the season on form and we knew that when he won the Tour of Oman. We also believe he would have won Tirreno-Adriatico if the big mountain stage hadn’t been taken out for the snow. We wanted to get some steady results so there was no questions about his form and so he didn’t have to face questions about his form and anything else.”
A rallying call
After admitting some of Astana’s mistakes. Slongo tried to find something to be optimistic about and made a rallying call. “We’re third overall, were not seven minutes back, but almost at three minutes. We’ve got to bounce back and try something,” he said.
“We know we’ve got the strongest team and that we could also find some allies along the road because Valverde is also still a threat. We’ll see what happens out on the road and hope for the best. For sure we won’t sit back and accept defeat.
“The racing kicks off again tomorrow (Tuesday) with the mountain stage to Andalo over the tough Fai della Paganella climb that was covered in the Giro del Trentino. It’s short but it’s far from easy and comes after the rest day. Who knows what will happen.
“Then we’ve got Friday and Saturday, which are two big mountain stages. There’s still a long way to go in this Giro. It’ll be difficult if Kruijswijk and Chaves don’t crack but it’s too early to throw in the towel.”