If an Italian rider wins Milan-San Remo, Sean Kelly once put it, then he can sit back in the easy chair for the season. Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) became the first Italian winner of La Classicissima since 2006 with a lone raid over the Poggio last week, but rather than rest on his laurels, the Sicilian is taking a leaf out of Kelly's own, unrelenting approach.
On Sunday, Nibali will make his Tour of Flanders debut, and that evening, as Kelly habitually did in the 1980s, he will board the last flight from Brussels to Bilbao in order to line out for the opening stage of the Tour of the Basque Country on Monday morning.
Officially, Nibali's principal mission in Flanders is to acquaint himself with the demands of racing on cobblestones ahead of stage 9 of this year's Tour de France, which brings the peloton over the pavé of Paris-Roubaix, but there are clearly less extreme ways of doing so. Movistar, for instance, sent Mikel Landa to E3 Harelbeke last Friday, while Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde are slated to start Dwars door Vlaanderen in midweek.
Nibali, by contrast, will perform his testing beneath the bright lights of De Ronde itself, and, for all that the Tour's jaunt over the cobbles inspired his decision to compete in Flanders, it is clear that he will line out in Antwerp on Sunday morning with ambitions that far extend beyond seeing and being seen.
Racing the Tour of Flanders has long been an ambition for Nibali, but one not easily realised for a rider whose seasons tend to be oriented around Grand Tours. Skipping the Giro d'Italia for the first time in three years meant that Nibali's April would not be taken up by a hefty block of altitude training, and over the winter, he made known his desire to race in Flanders.
"I know I don't have the raw power of people like Peter Sagan. I don't know the route, so I don't know the secrets of the cobbles and climbs, but I'm up for finding out," Nibali said in January, adding that his 2018 participation would be a scouting mission for future attempts at winning the Ronde.
Nibali certainly possesses the fundamental bike handling and positioning skills demanded by this kind of race, as testified by his assured showing on the rain-soaked cobbles of stage 5 of the 2014 Tour. On that sodden afternoon, he not only placed a hefty deposit on the maillot jaune, but he out-performed a solid cadre of Classics specialists as he placed third behind Lars Boom in Arenberg.
On that 2014 Tour, Nibali reached the pavé buoyed by a stage win in Sheffield three days earlier and, after a strikingly similar win at Milan-San Remo, he might well feel as though just about anything is possible.
"First of all, I think it's more a real test on cobbles before the Tour de France – a materials test and also feeling on the cobbles and so on," Bahrain-Merida directeur sportif Rik Verbrugghe told Cyclingnews in Belgium this week. "But from the other side, you know Vincenzo, he's a special rider. He's shown already in the Tour that racing on cobbles isn't a problem for him, so you never know.
"I don't think the real specialists of Flanders and the cobbles will drop him on one of the famous climbs, but the only thing is that he's maybe going to lack the power on the flat cobbles to be there with the best. But I think with his experience he can handle this."
Nibali will arrive at Bahrain-Merida's Classics base in Kortrijk on Thursday evening and reconnoitre the course on Friday morning. His lack of knowledge of the parcours will not, Verbrugghe maintains, penalise him unduly. In contrast with the old Tour of Flanders finale over the Muur and Bosberg, the Belgian believes that neophytes can adapt more quickly to the current route and its twin ascents over the Kwaremont and Paterberg.
"In the past, you really needed experience to know when you turn left or right to the climbs or the cobbled sections," Verbrugghe said. "But now, if you look at the last 80 or 90 kilometres, they're all on the same roads, so there's not the same likelihood of being caught out of position because you don't know a climb. That makes it easier for riders like Nibali when they come up against the real specialists with experience on the cobbles."
After winning on Via Roma on March 17, Nibali travelled to Austria last week to reconnoitre the course of the demanding Innsbruck Worlds, which will be his main target in the second part of the season.
Despite Milan-San Remo victory and the impending Ronde debut, meanwhile, the centrepiece of Nibali's spring campaign is Liège-Bastogne-Liège, where he placed second in 2012. Nibali will ride wholeheartedly at the Tour of Flanders, but his efforts at the Tour of the Basque Country in the days afterwards will be calibrated with La Doyenne in mind.
"His build-up to Liège is changed – not so much in terms of the races he does, but the way he does them," Verbrugghe said. "Because he's doing Flanders, he won't be in Pais Vasco for GC, which is a change. He'll ride to support the Izagirre brothers.
"I think one of the most difficult parts is to do a race of 250km on cobbles and then start the day after in Pais Vasco. I did it in my career three times and I know that it's difficult. It's really important that you don't go full gas there in the first days to try to be with the best guys in the final because otherwise, you'll kill yourself for the rest of the Classics afterwards. Vincenzo is smart enough not to go there for GC."
Kelly, of course, would fly back north from the Basque Country in time for Paris-Roubaix. Nibali's own Hell of the North debut will have to wait for another year, but regardless of results in Belgium and Spain over the coming weeks, victory in San Remo has smoothed the road considerably for the Sicilian from here to July.
"It's good that he won Milan-San Remo, it means there's a lot less pressure before going to the Tour de France," Verbrugghe said. "The Tour of Flanders is something where we'll just have to see. I think he has the skills to do it, to make a good result. But it's without pressure."
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