In the end, Vincenzo Nibali's UCI Road World Championships challenge was something of a race against time and, deep down, he must have suspected that the battle was already lost long before he was distanced from the group favourites on the final ascent up to Igls.
A little over two months ago, Nibali fractured a vertebra in a crash on Alpe d’Huez at the Tour de France. Under normal circumstances, the incident might have ended his season. Instead, Nibali underwent percutaneous bilateral vertebroplasty surgery in early August in a bid to speed up his recovery, and he rushed back to competition at the Vuelta a España in an attempt to regain his condition ahead of the Worlds road race.
With a little under 25 kilometres remaining on Sunday, however, Nibali lost contact with the main group after Steven Kruijswijk (Netherlands) attacked at the front. He would eventually reach the finish in 49th place, more than six minutes down on winner Alejandro Valverde (Spain).
Considering the troubled build-up, it could hardly be considered a surprise. Ahead of the Worlds, Nibali had effectively handed the reins of leadership of the Italian team over to Gianni Moscon – who placed 5th on Sunday – though he continued to hope against hope that he might make an impact in the finale.
"I would have liked to have dedicated this Worlds to [Michele] Scarponi. Before the start I saw his photo on a banner, and to my grandfather Vincenzo who died this year," Nibali told La Gazzetta dello Sport.
"I’m disappointed with myself. At a certain point, I had a sudden black-out, I was spent. I paid for that acceleration from Kruijswijk. I was lacking explosivity and I wasn’t able to go into the red. After the Vuelta, I had some good responses, but it wasn’t enough. The only positive thing is that it was a demanding race, even faster than expected and, after all of my problems, I didn’t feel back pain. But it’s clear that I’ll have to work all winter."
A year ago, Nibali enjoyed a sparkling end to the season, winning Il Lombardia after placing second at the Giro dell’Emilia. Had he been in a position to replicate that form in Innsbruck, his race could have been very different. Instead, his fourth place in Florence in 2013 remains his best showing at the Worlds, though the 33-year-old will surely form part of the Italian squad in Yorkshire in 2019 and on a demanding course in Switzerland a year later.
"Bigger favourites than me were dropped only a few kilometres later. I put everything I could into it but I couldn’t do any more," Nibali said of his effort in Innsbruck. "With the legs I had at the end of 2017, between Emilia and Lombardia, I think I could have been in contention right to the end."
Nibali’s season will continue for another two weeks, with the Giro dell’Emilia, Tre Valli Varesine and Il Lombardia all confirmed on his schedule. The Sicilian has yet to make a decision on his participation in the delayed Italian national time trial championship, which takes place on Thursday.
Cassani defends Italian tactics
The Italian team were among the most prominent in Sunday’s race, and they were very active in the pursuit of early escapees Kasper Asgreen (Denmark) and Vegard Stake Laengen (Norway), who were still in front on the final lap of the race.
Nibali and Domenico Pozzovivo, however, were not in the front group on the final climb of Höll, while Moscon did not have the strength to stay with Valverde’s winning move over the summit. Moscon’s fifth place was all Italy had to show for their efforts, though national coach Davide Cassani defended their tactical approach, claiming that the team had made no mistakes during the race.
"Moscon was only a few seconds off playing it out for the world title," Cassani told La Gazzetta.
"If he’d reached the top of the climb with five seconds less of a deficit, he’d have been fighting it out for the jersey. The team was perfect, we weren’t surprised by anything. We knew that the climb on the circuit couldn’t force a selection because it was too fast. It was all going to be decided on the last climb and Gianni was very good.
"I’d give the team eight out of 10. There were no errors. We knew that Nibali’s condition wasn’t perfect, so for that reason we didn’t make it a harder race. We sacrificed the men who would have been dropped anyway."