After measuring his efforts well during the first week of the Giro d'Italia, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) measured his words carefully during his rest day press conference in Cimetta di Codogné on Monday. While Nibali said that he anticipates attacks from Sky's Colombian riders Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran, he refused to rule their leader Bradley Wiggins out of the running for final overall victory.
Nibali, who took the maglia rosa after Saturday's time trial to Saltara, must now strike a careful balance over the remainder of the Giro, defending his 29-second overall lead where necessary and extending it where possible. Easier said than done, and the Sicilian anticipates the first major attacks on his overall lead to come on the climb of the Altopiano del Montasio when hostilities resume on Tuesday.
"Certainly, the team that above all is going to go on the attack is Sky," Nibali said. "In Uran and Henao, they have two riders who I don't think are just going to sit there watching. [Michele] Scarponi and Cadel Evans are up there on GC too and they're going well. They're the most dangerous rivals along with Wiggins."
The state of Wiggins' form, or more precisely, his morale, is one of the great conundrums of this Giro. The Englishman has looked uneasy on descents since crashing on the way down the San Silvestro on stage 7, and Nibali believes the problem is mental than rather than technical.
"It's not that he's a debutant, I think his problem is that the hard descents have been wet," Nibali said. "There must certainly be a plausible explanation, maybe an old crash. I've had some problems myself with wet descents in the past."
Nibali poured cold water on the possibility of eliminating Wiggins from contention on the treacherous descent of the Passo Cason di Lanza on stage 10 - "It's not a place to take risks," he said - and pointed instead to Wiggins' strength when the road goes uphill.
"Scarponi is maybe the one I've seen going best of all on the climbs, but I'd put Wiggins up there too because making up a minute on the final climbs like he did yesterday isn't very easy," Nibali said. "I don't underestimate Wiggins. There are very hard stages to come and I don't rule anybody out."
Although Nibali acknowledged that the Sky team of the 2013 Giro is very different to the behemoth that dictated affairs with metronomic efficiency throughout last year's Tour de France, he insisted that collectively they still had the potential to create problems in the mountains.
"Wiggins has a very different team to last year at the Tour which imposed a rhythm that left little opportunity for attacking. That said, while I haven't seen Wiggins attack much, he can make long accelerations in progressione when he does, so we'll see how he goes in the climbs to come. He has some good support too, with riders like Uran, Henao and Kanstatin Siutsou."
On paper, the Astana and Sky teams are arguably the two strongest in the race but on the road to Florence on Sunday, Nibali was left isolated in the closing kilometres after his team had worked to distance Wiggins on the descent of Vallombrosa.
"I think we all needed this rest day," Nibali said. "Yesterday the boys worked very well and this rest day will be very good for [Paolo] Tiralongo and [Valerio] Agnoli who have both been ill and are recovering well now. After Gruzdev fell on the descent yesterday, I was left with just Tanel Kangert in the finale but he was very strong all the way to the end."
One way of alleviating the strain on Astana's resources would be to "park" the pink jersey with another team by allowing a break go up the road during the second week of the race. "That's something we'd look at and decide upon during the race," said Nibali, who acknowledged that the responsibility of holding the overall lead was both a burden and a blessing: "Having the maglia rosa takes up time after every stage with the podium, anti-doping and the press conference, so there's less time to recover, but that's balanced by the motivation it gives you."
After a two-hour ride on Monday morning, Nibali was due to sit down and discuss stage 10's final climb to Altopiano di Montasio with manager Giuseppe Martinelli. Along with the finale to Bardonecchia on stage 14, it is the only summit finish at this Giro that Nibali has not reconnoitred.
"'Martino' drove up there this morning, so we'll talk about it later on," he said. "I know that there's a very steep section near the summit."
With 29 seconds in hand over Cadel Evans (BMC) and 1:16 over Wiggins, and after withstanding the brunt of the Englishman's fight-back in the Saltara time trial, it was put to Nibali that he is the man to beat at this Giro.
"Yes, that's true," Nibali admitted, before quickly adding, "But we'll see day by day. A giornata no is always possible."