After catching an overnight flight from Milan to Muscat, a bleary-eyed Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) had to be stirred from his bed on Monday afternoon to come downstairs for the pre-race photo call of Tour of Oman favourites in the courtyard of the Hormuz Grand Hotel.
The Sicilian will doubtless be part of the wide awake club by the time the race gets underway on Tuesday, though after undertaking an 11-day block of altitude training at Mount Teide in the build-up to the race, he is unsure of whether he will hit the ground running in Oman.
“I don’t know, we’ll have to see,” Nibali said after pulling up a seat. “I’m only down from Teide for three days so I’ll need a few days to assimilate the work I did up there at altitude. I’ll have to get back to race rhythm. It’s always a bit of a change when you come down and there’s the change in temperature, too, although it seems very, very good here, a lot cooler than last year.
“The Green Mountain stage will be the most important stage again, and I’ve just seen that it’s two kilometres longer so it’s going to be even more difficult.”
Winner atop Green Mountain in 2012, when he also finished second overall, Nibali has been a regular in Oman over the years. Though his programme changes this season with his return to the Giro d’Italia, he saw no reason to forgo the trip to the Middle East. “This has always worked well for me, it’s more or less always been part of my programme. I didn’t feel like I needed to change,” he said.
Speaking to reporters at last month’s Tour de San Luis, where he began his season, Nibali had lamented that he had been burdened with “the wrong teammates” at the 2015 Tour de France, where he recovered to finish fourth overall after a trying opening ten days. He took a more diplomatic line when asked to revisit the topic in Muscat on Monday.
“It’s simple. Last year there were some misunderstandings,” Nibali said. “We were trying to build the group in a certain direction and it wasn’t easy. Maybe there wasn’t the right feeling, especially during the first week. But I responded well in the end and my teammates helped me a lot, especially after that first week. I came very close to finishing on the podium, which would have put a different slant on a Tour de France that had started so badly.”
After building his season around the Tour in 2014 and 2015, Nibali returns to the Giro this May, with no little relief, it seems. “As defending champion of the Tour de France, we concentrated on it again last year,” he said. “But after two years, I really felt the need to go back to the Giro, even if only for the tifosi.”
Nibali distanced himself from the idea that he was going to the corsa rosa harbouring secret ambitions to complete the Giro-Tour double that proved beyond Alberto Contador last year, citing the Rio 2016 Olympics road race as a more realistic target than another yellow jersey in July.
“What Alberto tried to do last year, going for the double, is very demanding. As he said himself, it’s not simple. This year, I just want to think about the Giro, and beyond that, Rio is a very important objective,” Nibali said. “I’d maybe think of going to the Tour more as preparation for Rio. And besides, at Astana, we’ve got two riders for the big stage races, [Fabio] Aru and me, and we’re looking to divide up the important objectives, because that’s only right.”
Nibali’s contract with Astana expires at the end of the current season and he could only smile when asked about his plans for 2017 and beyond. Even at this early juncture, it is a well-worn question, and he must already have his standard response almost off pat.
“Let’s just say that at this point, my manager Alex Carera is taking care of everything,” he said. “There have been some important contacts, as the Italian press like Gazzetta has touched upon, and I can’t say any more than that. But there’ll be plenty of time to evaluate everything.”
Unlike in 2012, when Nibali’s passage from Liquigas to Astana was an open secret from early in the season, there appear to be more options on the table this time around. The arrival of Italian coffee giant Segafredo as co-sponsor at Trek makes it an obvious suitor, while Lampre-Merida manager Brent Copeland confirmed his team’s pursuit of Nibali to Cyclingnews last month.
For his part, Nibali stressed that his decision will not be based on economic factors alone. Whether he stays at Astana or opts for pastures new, he would prefer that his entourage – which would likely include trainer Paolo Slongo and riders such as Valerio Agnoli and Alessandro Vanotti – would remain alongside him.
“At Astana, there’s a group that works with me, so it’s important that the group stays with me. That’s my thinking at least, I’d like to keep them close,” Nibali said. “For the rest, I don’t know. But it’s not just about Vincenzo Nibali, it’s about the group around him too.”