He came, he smiled and took some selfies with fans, he stood on a podium and he left: Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) paid a lightning-fast visit to the Liège-Bastogne-Liège presentation on Saturday, but it was enough to garner the Sicilian some of the biggest cheers of all from the fans present and to remind his rivals that on Sunday, the Shark Of Messina will once again be on the prowl.
Last Wednesday, Nibali's attack over the first of three ascents of the Mur effectively lit the touch paper for a series of challenges to Alejandro Valverde's domination, and his long breakaway was instrumental in the wearing down process of the Movistar Team as well.
Nibali was caught at the foot of the final ascent of the Mur, but combined with his stunning victory in Milano-Sanremo, his high profile attack at the Tour of Flanders and his long history of Classics success, nobody is ruling out an even more sustained, dangerous attack by the Italian on Sunday.
And Nibali received the warmest of welcomes from the crowds at Saturday's team presentation, too. This could well be because Liège's Italian connections are more than well established, both as a city and a race. Until very recently, Liège has had a centuries-old tradition of Italians migrating there to work in its industries, and the climb to Saint-Nicolas has long been nicknamed 'the Italian corner' because of the number of Nibali's compatriots who have settled in that part of Liege.
Nibali's relationship with Liège-Bastogne-Liège is a lengthy and intense one too, with 2018 his 13th participation. As he recounted in an interview with La Gazzetta dello Sport on Saturday, Liège was the first Monument he took part in and he was dropped on the Haut Levée climb, getting so tired in the process that he said, "my ears were dragging along the ground." He finally finished the race but in 113th position, dead last on the day.
In 2012, though, Nibali was almost at the opposite end of the results sheet when he launched a dangerous late attack. He was caught and passed by Maxim Iglinskiy on the drag towards the finish in Ans, however, with the Italian finally settling for second. And although Nibali says that losing to Iglinskiy was a defeat that "still burns", it was also an indicator of what he was capable of doing in a race like Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Speaking on Saturday afternoon after taking a selfie with one fan close to the railings bearing an immense Italian flag, Nibali was brief, polite and non-committal about his chances. "The warm weather is a bit special and it will help a few people," he pointed out. "We'll see what I can do, we'll see a very difficult race, a bit tactical, but I can’t say anything more." And with that, Nibali was rushed onto the podium for the team presentation in front of the crowds.
Speaking in much more depth with La Gazzetta dello Sport, Nibali observed that the two new climbs, the Côte de Bonnevue (after 72 kilometres) and the Côte de Mont-le-Soire (after 152 kilometres) could do more damage than their relatively early positioning in the course would suggest.
"They're both situated at points where you risk using energy you'd then need in the final," Nibali pointed out. "This is a completely new Liège for me, because they have changed some other sections and the Côte de la Roche [after 239 kilometres] is tackled on a different side. Or at the very least, I don't ever remember having done it.
"The new ascent seems to suit riders who are less explosive, like me, but it's always the same in a one-day race, there are plenty of riders who've arrived really well prepared for this and who've got this race as their big goal of the season.
"It'll be a very unusual Liège, because these changes of route and new climbs make it tougher overall. Then there's this heat, which is unprecedented in Belgium, and it's the first time we've had that kind of heat this season. It can play some really nasty tricks on people after a race 260 kilometres long."
Nibali was notably less loquacious about his own condition, despite agreeing when La Gazzetta dello Sport put it to him that Paolo Slongo, his trainer, felt he was close to top form. The Italian replied with a smile, before saying simply "Yes, we hope so, we’ll see."
Returning to his race analysis, Nibali waxed much more lyrical, saying “Liège is a tough race, a tremendously hard one. I like it, because like in Lombardia, when you reach the finish, you know you’ve given everything. They are races that squeeze you hard, from the beginning to the end."
As for the Italian connections with the race, Nibali said "you don't remember it so much when you're racing, because you're watching what happens too closely and Saint-Nicolas comes at a crucial moment of the race. But all along the route, the number of tricolori [Italian flags] has a real effect. You feel like you're racing at home."
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