Vincenzo Nibali's attempts to unseat Bradley Wiggins at last year's Tour de France were thwarted by the strong arm of the Englishman's Sky team but the Sicilian is hopeful that he can find terrain more amenable to his particular brand of ambush tactics on home roads at the Giro d'Italia.
The signs from the opening days of racing in Italy's deep south have been encouraging for Nibali and his Astana team. While Sky's collective strength remains largely intact, the punchy climbs and sinuous descents in Campania and Calabria exposed chinks in the black armour that will doubtless be tested further as the race progresses.
"The Giro d'Italia has always been like this. There are always lots of nervous stages and on days like these, controlling things with your team is a lot more difficult," Nibali told Cyclingnews in Cosenza. "There's a bit of confusion in the finale and you have some pretty fast riders in there too who are racing for the sprint finish and it all becomes quite complicated. Then when you throw in a bit of rain in the finale over roads that aren't exactly the widest, well, that just makes it all a bit more difficult again."
After limiting his losses to Sky in the Ischia team time trial on stage two, Nibali moved ahead of Wiggins at Serra San Bruno on Tuesday, when the Sky captain yielded 17 seconds in a frenetic, rain-soaked finale that raised eyebrows at Gazzetta dello Sport. Noting that Wiggins's Colombian teammates Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Henao had contested the stage win rather than wait for their leader, the newspaper speculated on Wednesday morning that the pair had defied orders to chase their own objectives.
"I don't know what to say about that," Nibali said. "Of course, I read about it but I've also heard that Bradley told them to go on and try to win the sprint for the stage, so honestly, I don't really know what went on at Sky. All I can say is that these are very difficult finishes and it's very complicated for everyone to stay together because everything happens so quickly."
Nibali himself had endured a difficult moment on stage four when he punctured on the approach to the final climb, the Croce Ferrata, but his teammate Valerio Agnoli immediately handed over his wheel and the Sicilian was safely in the front group by the time Sky began imposing their rhythm.
"We saw that the weather wasn't great, the descent was slippery and there wasn't long left to the finish but Agnoli gave me his wheel immediately and I was able to get back on almost straightaway," Nibali said.
After arriving in Matera on Wednesday evening, the Giro now begins to wind its way up the Adriatic coast towards Gabicce Mare and Saltara, the scene of Saturday's crucial time trial. At 55 kilometres in length, the stage promises to put minutes rather than seconds between the overall contenders, but Nibali is bullish about his chances of limiting his losses to Wiggins. "The route is really very difficult," he said. "The important thing for me is going to be getting there with the most amount of energy possible and then do a great time trial."