Vincenzo Nibali’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège challenge ground to a halt, of all places, on the Côte de Saint-Nicolas, epicentre of the local Italian community since the 1950s and a climb that so often smiled on Italian riders during their period of dominance more than a decade ago.
Distanced as the gradient stiffened on the Saint-Nicolas, Nibali ceded leadership of Astana to Diego Rosa for the final kilometres, and he eventually crossed the line in 51st place, some 2:21 down on winner Wout Poels (Sky).
The frigid temperatures and intermittent snow that caused the peloton to be re-routed early on lent an additional dimension to the race, though Nibali suggested his efforts at the Giro del Trentino in midweek were a greater contributing factor to his travails than the miserable conditions.
“It was really a terrible Liège because of the weather. We had snow on a lot of sections today but fortunately it didn’t stick to the ground, although it was still extremely cold,” Nibali told reporters after showering and changing on the Astana team bus.
“At Trentino I suffered a lot and then I went in the break on the last stage to do a bit more work, so in the end, the legs responded well today considering I’d only had one day to recover. I did great work today, a continuation of what I did last week. My body is responding very well.”
Nibali placed second in Liège in 2012, overhauled by Maxim Iglinskiy on the final haul towards Ans, and has made no secret of his sense of unfinished business with the race. With his mind already trained firmly on the Giro d’Italia, however, Nibali was frank in his analysis of the finale here, confessing that he simply didn’t have the sharpness to compete for the win.
“Today I cracked in the finale, right on the Saint-Nicolas, so there are no excuses,” Nibali said. “But Diego Rosa was going very well and [Tanel] Kangert too. In the end I just tried to keep them up there in position for as long as I could, and Diego made an important attack on the top of Saint-Nicolas.”
The effects of six and a half hours of racing in sleet and snow were such that Nibali’s teeth were still chattering and his eyelids were twitching involuntarily as he spoke with reporters almost three quarters of an hour after the finish. At the snowbound Milan-San Remo of 2013, Nibali had abandoned in a state of near-hypothermia, but he felt he had dealt well with the conditions in Liège.
“I changed my jacket twice and my gloves too, I was well wrapped up all day,” Nibali said. “I saw Poels in the peloton a few times and it really looked like he was suffering the cold. But then in the finale, he was clearly the guy who dealt with it best.”
Given how forthright Nibali was in expressing his disappointment when RCS Sport cancelled the key stage of Tirreno-Adriatico due to snowfall, it was no surprise to find that he had no qualms about the decision to proceed with Liège-Bastogne-Liège despite the conditions on Sunday.
“Look, Tirreno was very important for me, and I took a position on it because I wanted to fight for victory. But when a lot of riders have a common interest in doing a race, like here at Liège or any other classics, it suits every rider to continue,” Nibali said. “Everybody will remember this edition of Liège because it had something epic about it.”
Liège-Bastogne-Liège marked Nibali’s last race before the Giro d’Italia gets underway in Apeldoorn a week from Friday, but despite his travails in Belgium and his subdued showing in Trentino – at least relative to winner Mikel Landa (Sky) – he gently diffused concerns about his condition ahead of the corsa rosa.
“We’ll try to improve day by day: there are still 10 days to recover my energy before the Giro,” Nibali said, adding that he was not preoccupied by any rival in particular. “There are a lot of rivals. Today I could see some of them – [Ilnur] Zakarin is going very well, so he could be a surprise at the Giro. Then there’s Landa who was in good condition in Trentino, and [Alejandro] Valverde is very strong.
“In recent years at the Tour and the Vuelta, he’s always been a tough nut to crack, and I expect a very competitive Valverde at the Giro.”