Vincenzo Nibali’s travails on the Tour of Poland’s opening weekend in the Dolomites may have provoked some concerned headlines in the Italian sporting press, but the Astana rider is confident that he is on track for his late-season objectives of the Vuelta a España and world championships.
Certainly, Nibali could hardly have chosen less amenable terrain for his first competitive outing since his Giro d’Italia victory in May, and the forbidding summit finishes at Madonna di Campiglio and the Passo Pordoi doled out their inevitable verdict. After two months away from racing, Nibali was not surprised to cough up over half an hour across the two stages.
“I knew it would be very difficult because I was away from racing for quite a bit, and I only had one big block of training in the mountains for two weeks before coming back here in Poland,” Nibali told Cyclingnews after arriving in a sweltering Krakow on the Tour of Poland’s rest day.
“Already, day by day, I’m starting to feel better. On Sunday I tried to go in the break so I could get into the rhythm of racing again and I think now is the right time to make these big efforts and to work hard. There’s still a lot of time before the Vuelta and I’m sure I’ll get there in good condition.”
Dazzled by the spotlight in the weeks immediately following his Giro win, it was understandable that the Vuelta and Worlds scarcely registered on Nibali's horizon. Coupled with the usual demands made on a new maglia rosa in Italy, he was also summoned to be feted on two separate occasions in Astana by his Kazakh employers.
“It’s normal but I didn’t touch the bike for around a fortnight,” Nibali said. “And then when you come back, you’re effectively starting from zero again. There were so many requests, so many functions, so many things… You can’t always be on top form.
“In the first part of the season, I hit all my targets and I won the three most important races that I rode – the Giro d’Italia, Tirreno and Trentino, so it’s normal that I’m a bit more tranquillo now.”
Such tranquillity should not be mistaken for indifference, however, and after confirming his current shape at the weekend, Nibali has already amended his pre-Vuelta programme accordingly, adding the Vuelta a Burgos to his schedule.
“It was already more or less in my programme but we weren’t certain because the two races are so close,” he said. “But seeing that there’s still a lot of time to go to the Vuelta after that, I’ve decided to go to Burgos rather than stay at home and train.”
Should Nibali manage to conjure up his May form once again, he has a fine opportunity to join Eddy Merckx (1973), Giovanni Battaglin (1981) and Alberto Contador (2008) on the elite list of riders to have won the Giro and the Vuelta in the same year, but is the siren call of history stronger than the lure of leading the squadra azzurra in a home world championships in Florence?
“I’ll see a bit as I go along,” Nibali said, when asked if he will ride the Vuelta to win or simply to prepare for the Worlds. “The objective right now is certainly to get to the Vuelta in good condition and then day by day try to be up there. But if I find I don’t have the right condition, then maybe I’ll start thinking about stage wins instead and building towards the Worlds.”
While Nibali admitted that he will not pay any close consideration to the Vuelta route until shortly before the race gets underway on August 24, he has already reconnoitred the Worlds parcours with Italian coach Paolo Bettini and the ten laps over the demanding climb to Fiesole mean that he is the natural leader of the national team, even if he is reluctant – publicly at least – to call for particular privileges.
“I’d like to see some of my teammates from Astana beside me at the Worlds but they have to win their place by showing that they’ve in great condition, and rightly so for a race like that,” he said diplomatically. “It’s not for me to make certain decisions; that’s for the commissario tecnico.”
While Nibali was slowly readjusting himself to life in the saddle at his training camp on the Passo San Pellegrino in July, Chris Froome (Sky) was in the process of methodically bending the Tour de France to his will. “I watched a few stages from the Tour, especially the summit finishes. Froome put in some really great performances and he really deserved to win that Tour de France," Nibali said.
Such was Froome’s dominance in France that many were left to wonder what the presence of Nibali and his Astana guard from the Giro might have done to alter the complexion of the race, but the Sicilian was reticent to join in the speculation.
“It’s hard to say that because it’s a different situation. If I’d gone to the Tour with the same condition I had at the Giro, then I would have had a good result but it’s hard to say if I would have won,” Nibali said. “Sometimes during a race, you need a bit of invention and a bit of luck to win.”
Nibali showed such invention at Tirreno-Adriatico in March, of course, where on a sodden day to Porto Sant’Elpidio, he upset the odds to inflict Froome’s only stage racing defeat of the 2013 campaign. “Yes, but that was a race with a very difficult route, especially the last couple of days, and it favoured me more than it did Chris Froome,” Nibali said coyly.
“Still, at the Giro, I showed that I’ve improved a bit in the time trial too, so maybe in a Tour like this year’s, I could have done very well. But it’s hard to say if I would have been able to take on Froome.”
At the world championships and, one assumes, next July, they will line up as rivals, but Nibali had a certain degree of sympathy for Froome’s position during the Tour, as he faced a barrage of doping questions and speculation over the legitimacy of his performances.
“I’ve said it many times before: this is a new and different cycling, and we have done a lot of things to show how transparent we are,” Nibali said. “But unfortunately, we’re carrying the old story along with us, which always causes people to think badly of a good sporting performance, like Chris Froome’s at the Tour.”