Sicilian attacks, crashes and gains in stage 7 rain-soaked finale
On a day that saw the Giro d'Italia pass through Rocky Marciano's ancestral home of Ripa Teatina, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) delivered an important early blow in the fight for final overall victory after twice picking himself off the canvas in the run-in to Pescara.
When the bell sounded at the end of stage 7, Nibali's scorecard placed him with a distinct advantage over Bradley Wiggins (Sky), who was also a faller on the rain-soaked final descent of San Silvestro. Although Wiggins will doubtless come out swinging in Saturday's time trial to Saltara, Nibali finds himself with an unexpected buffer of 1:27 over the Englishman.
"I didn't expect it myself in a stage like that," Nibali admitted after crossing the line in a sizeable group that came in just over a minute down on stage winner Adam Hansen (Lotto Belisol) but almost a minute and a half ahead of Wiggins.
Nibali may not have expected to finish the day with those gains but that is not to say that he did not go in search of them. After sending teammate Tanel Kangert up the road in the finale, Nibali himself looked to force the initiative by attacking on a downhill section with eight kilometres to go.
The Sicilian's exploratory jabs immediately put Wiggins and his Sky team on the back foot, but his progress was halted by not one, but two crashes before he reached the finish in Pescara.
"The first time I didn't do anything to myself, but the second time I hurt myself a bit more even if the speed was very low," Nibali said. "I was beside [Danilo] Di Luca and my back wheel went out from under me. The tarmac was very slippery but there are no complications, just a blow to my hip."
Nibali took a calculated risk in going on the offensive in such treacherous conditions and on such sinuous roads, particularly given that there are over two weeks of racing in which to deliver a knock-out blow. The ends justified the means, however, with Sky manager Dave Brailsford acknowledging that "ultimately, it worked as he gained time.
"I didn't take any real risks, and I didn't exaggerate," Nibali said of his downhill raid. "But tomorrow is the time trial, and Wiggins is the king of time trials - he put three minutes into me there at the Tour last year.
"I certainly didn't want to risk too much, and the roads were so slippery that it was obscene really. But I gained something, so it worked out well. I wanted to try and do something. Some of it went well and some of it went badly, but all told I think the glass is half full rather than half empty."
Nibali acknowledged that without the crashes, his gains over Wiggins could have been yet greater. "I'm not very happy about the crashes but so be it," he said. "I hadn't fallen all year, and then I fell twice today but that happens."
Hostilities will resume in Saturday's 55-kilometre time trial from Gabicce Mare to Saltara, where Nibali expects to assume a more defensive stance. "The favourite is Wiggins and I hope I lose the least amount of time possible but I don't want to say how much," Nibali said coyly.
The Giro's scorecard currently has Nibali as the best-placed of the overall contenders, five seconds off the pink jersey of Benat Intxausti (Movistar), three ahead of Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp), 11 ahead of Cadel Evans (BMC), 14 ahead of Robert Gesink (Blanco), 52 ahead of Michele Scarponi (Lampre-Merida) and 1:27 up on Wiggins. There may yet be more than the anticipated two contenders for the title.
"Today, I also saw that Scarponi is going to be very good in the mountains and in the finale Evans and Ryder Hesjedal looked good too," Nibali said. "They're very combative."