If the Giro d'Italia were a popularity contest, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) would have had the general classification long since wrapped up. Indeed, one mobile phone company has asked its users to vote each day for their Ciclista del cuore on the race, and their response has been unanimous.
And so in Molveno on Wednesday morning, a day after one of the greatest setbacks of his career, Nibali was once again called the podium before the start in order to receive his umpteenth complimentary smartphone of this Giro. He even managed to summon a smile during the incongruous ceremony as he acknowledged the applause, which has followed his every move throughout the past two and half weeks.
After slipping to fourth overall at Andalo on Tuesday, some 4:43 behind maglia rosa Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo), Nibali opted not to stop for journalists at the finish line. He spoke to Gazzetta dello Sport at his hotel later that evening, though only after pleading to be left alone. "Why do you want to wound my pride even more? I'm already in pieces," he said.
Nibali's travails have generated plenty of column inches over the past week, with everything from the ruminations over his imminent move to a new Bahrain-backed team to his decision to switch to 175-millimetre cranks cited as explanations for his subdued Giro.
For the most part, however, the Italian press has been largely supportive of Nibali – just as they were, for instance, when he was expelled from last year's Vuelta a España for taking a tow from a team car.
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No matter, when Nibali spoke to reporters outside the Astana bus in Molveno, he returned to a theme he had already touched upon in an interview with Procycling earlier this year, when he complained that he had been "massacred" by his home media.
"There are moments in life when things don't go as you hope, when I don't ride well," Nibali said on Wednesday morning. "There's no point in being so heavily critical of me because I'm not riding well. I understand how social media works and how the media works things, but it's all pointless.
"If these are the results I can achieve, then they've got to be accepted and understood. Some have even suggested that I'm suffering mentally, but it's just not true. I'm fine."
Even as Nibali was speaking, his words risked being drowned out by the shouts of the tifosi gathered outside the cordon around the Astana bus. The narrative of the media 'attacking' Nibali has seemingly taken hold. "Basta! Leave him alone!" one cried, and a chorus of "Vai Squalo!" greeted Nibali as he soft-pedalled to sign on.
Nibali finished Wednesday's flat, fast stage safely in the main body of the peloton and he remains in fourth place overall, 1:20 off third-placed Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and just 7 seconds ahead of Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha).
After crossing the line in Cassano d'Adda, home to Valentino Mazzola, captain of the great Torino team of the 1940s, Nibali rode directly to the Astana team bus, where a crew from RAI television waited for its – almost – customary post-stage interview with the Italian champion.
On this occasion, however, they were to be left disappointed. When Nibali emerged from the bus after showering and changing, he instead made directly for the fans lined up outside the cordon, who began to chant "Vin-cen-zo! Vin-cen-zo!" in unison.
The RAI television crew hopefully filmed Nibali as he signed autographs and stood in for selfies with tifosi, but he side-stepped them neatly as he turned back towards the bus, and perhaps pointedly limited himself to a few words in English to a Danish television crew waiting for its daily appointment with Jakob Fuglsang.
"There are hard stages to come and I hope the feeling is good," Nibali said. He smiled when asked if he still felt he could win the Giro: "I don't know."
Nibali is due to undergo further tests on Thursday morning to ascertain whether there is any underlying health problem behind his disappointing showings thus far, but the Sicilian has so far appeared adamant that he will continue in the race to Turin, come what May. That feeling was echoed by Astana directeur sportif Giuseppe Martinelli.
"We'll do the exams tomorrow morning and then we'll decide. But like Vincenzo said this morning, he has no intention of leaving the Giro. We're fourth overall, so there's no need for alarm," Martinelli said.
There are still two mammoth stages to come in the Alps, which could turn the general classification on its head, though Martinelli was cautious about Nibali's prospects of producing a remarkable turnaround to finish on the podium.
"I think that you could expect anything from Vincenzo. But right now, words count for little," he said. "I think Vincenzo has taken on the race from the very beginning and taken on the responsibility to try to win the Giro. It hasn't gone as it should have done, but I have faith in him."
Asked if Nibali was experiencing the worst moment of his career on this Giro, meanwhile, Martinelli nodded. "Probably yes," he said. "But in moments of difficulty, the real man emerges, and I want him to be that man right now."
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