Italy’s long wait for a classics victory stretched to three years after the home challenge fell short at the Tour of Lombardy on Saturday. While Ivan Basso (4th) was their best-placed rider, it was his Liquigas-Cannondale teammate Vincenzo Nibali who set Italian hearts aflutter when he sallied clear with an ambitious move on the Madonna di Ghisallo.
Although Nibali passed the stirring chapel at the summit with 1:40 in hand over his pursuers, a combination of the peculiarities of the new course and the belatedly organised pursuit behind saw the Sicilian’s chances ebb away on the long valley ahead of the final climb, the Villa Vergano, and he was caught with 16km to go.
“In Lombardy last year, you had the San Fermo straight after the Colma di Sormano but this time, from the Ghisallo there was 30km of flat before the last climb,” Nibali said at the finish in Lecco. “The Sky riders started pulling behind and set a high rhythm, and of course in the valley, you could save a lot more energy by sitting on the wheels.”
Part of a small group that had formed when the peloton splintered on the descent of the Colma di Sormano, Nibali’s ferocious dig at the foot of the Ghisallo came with all of 55km still to race, and he distanced no less a figure than Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) in the process. He acknowledged that he wanted to shed himself of the Belgian’s presence before the precipitous 15% slopes of the Villa Vergano.
“I was worried about Gilbert. I didn’t want to get to the last climb with him, I would have risked losing. I would have preferred maybe Jakob Fuglsang with me and not Gilbert. The right companion with me would have helped.”
While Nibali’s ride provided spectacle aplenty, it ultimately yielded little, as he rolled in 40th, 7 minutes down on winner Oliver Zaugg (Leopard Trek). He explained that the move was not a pre-meditated one, but the circumstances of the race saw him commit to his effort.
“I was in radio contact with the team car on the way up the climb. They told me that if I had 20 or 30 seconds, I should wait for the group. But when I started the descent with 1:40, I took heart and I threw myself into this adventure. I believed. I gave it everything, heart and soul.”
Best supporting actor
Remarkably, given the consistency of his performances over the course of the season, Nibali’s closes his account for 2011 with no wins in the ledger. A protagonist throughout the year, Nibali fell short of his repeating his breakout 2010 season, when he took seven wins, including the Vuelta a España.
Nibali was as the day’s most aggressive rider after the race, and when he descended from the podium, it was put to him that his prize was the equivalent of an Oscar for best supporting actor and, as such, an apt summary of his year.
“It’s a bit like that, but it’s still an Oscar,” Nibali smiled. “From the beginning of the season right to the end I’ve been up there. I was looking to fight for the first positions and the victories.”
His string of success last year made him a marked man this time around, but Nibali accepts his status in the peloton. “The bigger you get, the harder it is to win. That’s normal, it’s part of the game, but because I’m not so fast, I have to try and attack to beat the others, and that’s not easy,” he said.
While the veteran Basso took 4th place, and Domenico Pozzovivo (Colnago-CSF Inox) was a solid 6th, there a palpable disappointment about the home showing as a fallow period for Italian cycling continues. Damiano Cunego's win in the 2008 edition of this race was Italy's last victory in monument.
Against such a backdrop, Nibali's swashbuckling attack offered some solace to the tifosi on the roadside, but he recognised that it was scant consolation. “Of course, I gave a spectacle today," he said, "but in my heart I was riding to win the Tour of Lombardy too."