Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) has had a score to settle with Liège-Bastogne-Liège from the moment the now-banned Maxim Iglinskiy inched past him just shy of the flamme rouge on the Côte de Ans four years ago, but the Sicilian has failed to sparkle in his visits since.
Nibali’s 13th place of a year ago was his best showing in the intervening period, though his challenge effectively ended once his acceleration on the Saint-Nicolas fizzled out. Despite its cruel ending, Nibali’s second place in 2012 following his solo raid off the Roche-aux-Faucons is the highpoint of his longstanding relationship with Liège-Bastogne-Liège, a race he has missed just once in his career.
After a low-key outing at the Giro del Trentino during the week, however, it remains to be seen whether Nibali can go one better this time around. Speaking to reporters at Liège’s Palais des Princes-Évêques on Saturday, the Sicilian admitted that he had struggled to readapt to race conditions after a lengthy stint of altitude training in Tenerife.
“We only came down last Friday and then went to Trentino on Monday, so it took me a while to get back up to race rhythm because I’d been away from racing for a month,” Nibali said. “I felt that during Trentino. Sometimes you feel good straightaway, other times you need a few days. But you just need to stay calm and wait for the right moment.
“I was looking for answers, and I struggled a bit, I’m not hiding that. But I’m sure that the work I’ve done will pay off later.”
After racing Milan-San Remo, Nibali cloistered himself in the Hotel Parador on Mount Teide to prepare expressly for next month’s Giro d’Italia, and with the greatest difficulties of the corsa rosa shoehorned into the final days of racing in the Alps, he declared himself unperturbed by his 21st place overall in Trentino, almost seven minutes down on Mikel Landa (Sky).
“Landa had a very steady build-up, and riding the Tour of the Basque Country beforehand certainly gave him a bit more condition in Trentino than the others,” Nibali said. “He was going very strongly but there’s a bit of time yet and the Giro d’Italia is something you have to live day by day. And the final week is very difficult.”
While Nibali seemed to infer that his Giro preparation leaves him shy of the condition needed to beat the likes of Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Dan Martin (Etixx-QuickStep) on Sunday, his early attack on the final stage of the Giro del Trentino had the feel of a man testing himself with an immediate goal in mind.
“I laboured a bit in Trentino because I was riding to get my race rhythm and condition. We’ll see. But certainly we’ve got a very strong team. [Jakub] Fuglsang is going very well and [Tanel] Kangert won two stages,” he said.
“Tomorrow it will be difficult, we’ll have to see how the legs respond. I’m not expecting them to be much better [than during the week]. It’s going to be a difficult race but you have to accept that.”
The race could be all the more difficult, of course, if the weather forecast for Sunday proves to be accurate, with temperatures set to plummet in the Ardennes and even a reported risk of snow near Bastogne. Nibali’s own record in foul conditions is generally positive – his victory at Tre Cime di Lavaredo at the 2013 Giro, for instance, or his showing on the cobbles at the following year’s Tour de France – though he suffered in the snowstorm at the dramatic 2013 edition of Milan-San Remo.
“We’ll have to see exactly how cold it is. It’s one thing if it rains and it’s 10 degrees, but if it’s 4 or 5 degrees and raining, then it’s very different,” Nibali said.
Nibali only arrived at Astana’s base at the Hotel Malpertuus in Riemst late on Friday, but he set out early on Saturday morning to reconnoitre the altered finale of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, tackling the new, cobbled climb of the Côte de la Rue Naniot, whose summit comes just 2.5 kilometres from the finish.
Shoehorned between the Côte de Saint-Nicolas – where Nibali will be cheered by Liège’s Italian community – and the long drag up to the finish at Ans, the new addition alters the character of the finale, though Nibali was unsure as to whether it would change the complexion of the race.
“They’ve changed the finale slightly. Clearly having an extra climb in the finale is quite a difference, and after so many kilometres, the effort will make itself felt,” Nibali said. “It’s close to the finish but you have to see how the peloton interprets it too. If the pace is very high on the Saint-Nicolas then that climb will really hurt. But we’ll have to see how people tackle the Saint-Nicolas first.
“It will change things a bit but it won’t shake things up completely. And in the end, it’s the riders who’ll decide how the race plays out.”