Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) will begin the final week of his 2018 season at the Tre Valli Varesine race on Tuesday, hoping he can somehow find a final spurt of form for Saturday's Il Lombardia after fighting back from the fractured vertebra he suffered on stage 12 of the Tour de France to Alpe d'Huez.
Nibali suffered his way through the Vuelta a España after undergoing vertebroplasty surgery to ease the pain in his back. He was hoping surgery would help him recover faster and give him a shot at the World Championships in Innsbruck, Austria, at the end of September.
However, Nibali was distanced even before the steep final climb of Höll during the Worlds road race, although it was as much about the process as a shot at the rainbow jersey, giving the Sicilian something to aim for and to keep him in the saddle.
Nibali will only pull the curtain down on his season on Sunday, with his first-ever ride at the Chrono des Nations in France, less than 24 hours after his efforts at Il Lombardia. They will be race days number 78 and 79 of what he described as "a long, hard season – a difficult season" while speaking to Cyclingnews.
Nibali hopes that his two months of suffering with very little to show for it will be rewarded at Il Lombardia. He won the final Monument of the season in 2015, and again last year.
"I felt OK at the Giro dell'Emilia," he said of Saturday's race. "I wasn't bad, and I finished eighth. But at the Tre Valli Varesine, and especially for Il Lombardia, the likes of Romain Bardet [AG2R], Rigoberto Uran and Michael Woods [both EF-Drapac] will have that little extra bit of form that I'm missing. I can perhaps stay with them in the finale, but in the sprint finish, where you have to give it everything, I'm missing that little bit of special form. I can only hope for a great day."
Nibali is struggling to stay optimistic as his season plays out, but he is realistic. He knows that success needs consistent hard work.
"It's frustrating, but it's also natural that things have turned out as they have," he explained. "Other riders crashed out and lost half a season, but I felt I couldn't do that. I couldn't go through the winter like that.
"The truth is that my form has been cobbled together after a vertebra fracture, surgery, work in the swimming pool and just 20 days' training before the Vuelta a España. The other guys have been carefully preparing for the second part of the season; they built for the Vuelta a España or other races and have now hit a real peak.
"I'm chasing them like two lines on a graph," Nibali said. "I feel as though I'm narrowing the gap, but I might run out of time. I could be in my best form in two or three weeks, but I'll be on holiday by then."