Vincenzo Nibali is in his native Sicily ready for the first GC showdown of the 100th edition of the Giro d'Italia. The Italian media is convinced 'Lo Squalo di Messina' will try to win stage 4 on Mount Etna, Europe's most active volcano, in the hope of riding into his home town on Wednesday resplendent in the maglia rosa, and Nibali and his Bahrain-Merida have done little to play down the growing sense of expectation.
The 17.9km climb on the dark and exposed volcanic slopes is the first of five mountain finishes at the Giro 100. It is also the most anticipated as the overall contenders face off for the first time. Nobody knows what will happen, who will attack and who will struggle, who will win the stage at the 1892m summit and who will pull on the pink jersey.
"It's inevitable that something will happen - Etna is a real climb," Nibali predicted on Sunday night, seemingly throwing down the gauntlet to main rival Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and the long-list of overall contenders.
"It'll be the first head-to-head fight, so we'll see how I am and how my rivals are too. It's a complicated stage to get right coming after a rest day. It's 180km and so not short. It includes 4000m of climbing. It's the first important step of the Giro. It's a big day."
Nibali and all his GC rivals lost 13 seconds to Bob Jungels after Quick-Step Floors blew stage 3 to Cagliari apart in the exposed final 11km on Sunday. However, those seconds will probably mean little on the slopes of Etna, especially with a 10-second time bonus awarded to the first across the line.
The first showdown of the 2017 Giro d'Italia will start on equal footing, with all the GC contenders in a select group of 26 riders, only 23 seconds behind stage 3 winner and rest day race leader Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors).
Of course, Nibali is hoping that home advantage in Sicily will give him an edge. He has often suffered under the weight of expectation in Grand Tours but he seems far more serene this year. The tension often on view during his years at Astana have disappeared because Nibali is virtually his own boss, carefully guided by his former agent Alex Carera, team manager Brent Copeland, and coach Paolo Slongo. The likes of Franco Pellizotti, fellow Sicilian Giovanni Visconti, Enrico Gasparotto and Kanstantsin Siutsou are 100 per cent committed to his cause.
"Vincenzo is focused on the race but he's also relaxed and happy because he and all the team had a good build-up and preparation for the Giro d'Italia," Slongo told Cyclingnews.
"Racing is racing; you never know what can happen. But we're where we want to be and that always helps. Vincenzo is serene like he was in 2014 when he started the Tour de France."
Nibali attacked in the final of stage 2 of the 2014 Tour de France in Sheffield and pulled on the yellow jersey, keeping virtually all the way to Paris. Slongo, like Nibali, refuses to reveal Bahrain's exact plans but gives away just enough to fuel the excitement that is in the air during the first rest day in Cefalu.
"I'm convinced that the big favourites will go on the attack. The wind could be a factor and blunt some moves but I'm sure it'll kick off," Slongo predicted.
"It's something you can't really plan beforehand, it depends on how the riders feel and who moves first. For sure we won't attack the race as a team but if we feel good, we won't be happy if everything stays together, we'll try something. Etna will be the first big test, the first real shake-out of the GC. Vincenzo is from Sicily, he's riding on his roads…"
Slongo revealed that Nibali did a detailed reconnaissance of the stage and the climb to the finish at the Rifugio Sapienza hotel and ski station.
"He rode it when he spent some time at home. The finish at Rifugio Sapienza is the same as when Contador won but this time they climb a new and different road up and then join the climb of 2011. The first part is pretty tough - it's steep and narrow and goes up at 8 per cent. The whole climb is 17km long and about half of it is at 8 per cent. That means it's a real climb," Slongo explained.
"Vincenzo's SRM power meter from the ride showed there was just less than 4000m of climbing during the stage. It's a hard stage and so they will already be tired when they get to the foot of the final climb. The racing in Sardinia has also been tough; they covered 2200m of climbing on stage 1 and then 3300m on stage 2. Then yesterday it was a fast stage and a hectic finale. Some people could be tired already and so Etna will definitely cause some problems."
Slongo describes the idea that Nibali could win the stage, ride into Messina in pink and then all the way to Milan, as fanta-ciclismo. He is a man of numbers, of VAM, watts and power. He knows Nibali's numbers and he calculates those of his rivals.
King of the Giro - not just Sicily
While a triumphant Nibali in Sicily would be great for Italian cycling and morale boosting for everyone at Bahrain-Merida, Slongo and Nibali are firmly focused on winning a third Giro d'Italia rather than just being crowned the King of Sicily.
Success and gaining precious time would be a blow to their rivals but taking the maglia rosa would also burden Bahrain-Merida with the responsibilities of the leader's jersey and race leadership. It would be difficult for a proud Italian like Nibali to let a lucky chancer ride off the front and take the pink jersey from him later in the week but Slongo insists Bahrain-Merida would do that as they look to the final classification in Milan on May 28.
"I think it's going to be a close race right to the final time trial in Milan, this Giro is going to be like a chess match, where every second won or lost will be important," he claimed.
"It'll be vital not to lose any seconds for a simple split in the peloton on a flat road, and also limit the losses in time trials. Everything will come down to the final time trial. Even if you're 30 seconds down on the pink jersey going into the final time trial, if you are strong, you can still come through and win in Milan.
"It's going to be a great race to watch from tomorrow onwards but very intense and very difficult to ride and get right."