Vincenzo Nibali is focused on ending his season with a strong performance at Il Lombardia and possibly even a third victory but he is also looking much further down the road, to the final phase of his career, as he decides if he will stay beyond 2019 with Bahrain-Merida or look for a new challenge elsewhere, perhaps even with Team Sky.
Nibali will start Il Lombardia wearing the number 1 as the 2017 winner. He also won the event known as, Race of the Falling Leaves, in 2015 and has won either a Grand Tour or a Monument Classic for the last six seasons. Nibali won Milan-San Remo in March and so considers his 2018 season a success despite the pain and suffering he endured after being knocked off his bike by a spectator on stage 12 of the Tour de France on Alpe d'Huez.
He underwent vertebroplasty surgery to ease the pain and returned in time for the Vuelta a España, in the hope of finding the form for the World Championships in Innsbruck but cracked before the decisive climb.
Nibali's form is better now than in Innsbruck two weeks ago but he does not know if it will be good enough to allow him to win Il Lombardia for a third time.
"My form is an incognito," Nibali said with pragmatism.
"I can only do what I can, my legs are what they are. It'll be about grit and determination. I haven't trained specifically for il Lombardia, I'm using the form I got from Vuelta, the Worlds and Giro dell’Emilia, where I was eighth.
"We all like to win and the course from Bergamo to Como suits me perfectly because of the long climbs and technical descents. I've won Il Lombardia twice in Como and so I'd love to do it again. But I know it'll be hard."
Considering his options beyond Bahrain-Merida and 2019
Nibali will fly to Nantes in northwest France to ride the Chrono des Nations on Sunday and then head to Zanzibar for a well-deserved holiday. While relaxing and recovering from the fatigue of the season, he may well start to consider his options for beyond 2019, perhaps picking the petals of a Zanzibar daisy to understand if he should stay with Bahrain-Merida or look elsewhere for a new challenge.
Nibali will turn 34 on November 14 but he is still ambitious, demanding a lot from himself and his team. He has often been left frustrated by Team Sky’s dominance of the Grand Tours and would love to have the support of a similar super team for the final years of his career and perhaps one final assault at the Tour de France.
Bahrain-Merida will undergo significant changes for 2019, with 11 riders moving on a similar number coming on board. Rohan Dennis and Damiano Caruso will join Nibali as stage race contenders, but Ion and Gorka Izagirre are leaving, and Franco Pellizotti is retiring.
Nibali is likely to stay at Bahrain-Merida even if the team’s management have apparently only offered him a contract extension covering 2020. The team was created after Nibali was invited to go cycling with Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa and he has been the leader and figurehead ever since. However, Nibali is not afraid to flirt with other teams interested in his services.
"I've got a contract with the team for 2019, I'm happy here and so we'll see if there's the possibility to continue to work together in the future," Nibali told Cyclingnews during an exclusive interview.
"This team started as a beautiful project wanted by Prince Nasser and it’s going to carry on for the next few years. If the prince came to me and said: 'Vincenzo, we want you to stay with the team,' I'd be happy to talk but so far that hasn't happened."
Nibali made his professional debut with Fassa Bortolo back in 2005 and has spent long spells at Cannondale, Astana and now Bahrain. His years of success has always meant other teams have been interested in hiring him. He was close to accepting an offer from Team Sky early in his career but opted to stay with Cannondale and then joined Astana.
"Next year I'm under contract with Bahrain-Merida but I've also received some very interesting offers alongside that from Bahrain-Merida. I'm going to have to carefully study things and decide which is best for me. It's not just about the contract but also about the development of the team as a project," Nibali explained to La Gazzetta dello Sport.
The Italian sports newspaper has suggested that Team Sky may again be interested in Nibali. Italy is a key market for the subscription television broadcaster and Nibali could perhaps mentor Egan Bernal as the Colombian develops into a Grand Tour contender and Nibali winds down his career.
"There was a moment when we talked but I was under contract. We’ll see. I can't say anything else for now. First I want to finish this season, rest up, recover, start training again and work on my weaknesses," Nibali said.
"I'd be flattered to receive an offer from Team Sky, I'd like that. It'd be a really nice challenge that I opted not to take up in the past. I don't have any regrets about that but Team Sky is a unique team; they can perhaps help you achieve things that you’ve never done before."