He’s still here. After a long delay due to a recalcitrant internet connection, Vincenzo Nibali’s pixelated face eventually appeared on the screen as he was patched in on a video call to the press room ahead of his 11th Giro d’Italia appearance.
The sound dropped out every now and then, and one wondered if Nibali felt tempted to fall back on a variation of the line trotted by a Kerry Gaelic footballer when his team kept making All-Ireland finals in the 1980s: “Just put me down for what I said last year.”
Then again, Nibali’s Giro prospects are not as straightforward as they used to be. After finishing third overall in 2010, Nibali was Italy’s standard bearer in every subsequent appearance, placing on the podium in each of his next five outings, including overall victory in 2013 and 2016.
That remarkable sequence was interrupted in the curious, pandemic-delayed edition of 2020, when Nibali reached Milan in seventh overall, and he could only manage 18th overall a year ago after injury ruined his preparation. This time out, and back in the colours of Astana Qazaqstan, Nibali arrives at the Giro on the back of a spring punctuated by illness, even if his display at the Giro di Sicilia offered guarded grounds for optimism.
“I don’t have precise ambitions, we’ll have to see during the race if my condition will allow me to ride for the general classification or if it will be better to go for stage wins and help Miguel Ángel López,” said Nibali.
“I’m not at the top of my form, but between the Giro di Sicilia and Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, my condition was improving.”
After 2010, a podium finish became the bare minimum expected by Nibali at the Giro, even if, in some editions of the race, placing in the top three was already an achievement in and of itself. In 2017, for instance, Nibali placed third in a remarkable four-way tussle with Tom Dumoulin, Nairo Quintana and Thibaut Pinot. Two years later, he outlasted Primož Roglič only to be foiled by Richard Carapaz.
Nibali missed the opportunity then to become the oldest Giro winner in history, and his prospects of taking Fiorenzo Magni’s spot in the record books have been ineluctably fading ever since. On Thursday afternoon, mind, Nibali saw no harm in underlining his track record when asked what would quantify a successful 2022 Giro.
“In 10 appearances at the Giro, I’ve only finished off the podium four times, so I don’t know,” Nibali said. “If I won a stage, that wouldn’t be a bad thing to take away, but we’ll see because the competition is very high.”
When Nibali rejoined Astana Qazaqstan last winter, directeur sportif Giuseppe Martinelli told Cyclingnews that he envisaged the Sicilian enjoying a free role at the Giro. Nibali will never be entirely free of the weight of being Vincenzo Nibali when he pins on a race number in his home country, of course, but expectations are certainly lower from the outset here. A year ago, he set out from Turin as Trek-Segafredo’s de facto co-leader with Giulio Ciccone. This time out, he appeared to warm to the idea of allowing López to carry the responsibility instead.
“We’ve worked together only in training this year and not in races, but we did race together in my first spell at Astana and we did nice things,” Nibali said of his teammate. “Miguel is coming in with good condition, he showed that with his stage win at the Tour of the Alps.”
López, like Nibali, returned to Astana this winter after a spell elsewhere, even if his single year of living dangerously at Movistar produced more melodrama than the five combined seasons of Sicilian’s stints at Bahrain and Trek-Segafredo.
López’s departure from Movistar was precipitated by his dramatic abandon on the penultimate stage of the Vuelta a España, born, it seems, out of frustration at his co-existence with Enric Mas. López quietly maintained that there would be no such issues at Nibali’s side.
“What happened with Movistar is in the past and now I’m looking to the future,” said López, who placed third overall at this race in 2018. “I’ve worked with Vincenzo in the past, I’ve raced with him and shared leadership. He’s a great person and a great champion, and I think we can both do a great Giro.”
With Roglič and Tadej Pogačar both absent, and with just 26km of time trialling on the entire route, López has every reason to set out from Budapest with optimism. In an open race and backed by a strong team that includes Joe Dombrowski and Harald Tejada, the 28-year-old might never have a better chance to inscribe a Grand Tour on his palmarès. The nous of Nibali will be a crucial ingredient, too, even if the veteran is allowing himself space to dream of making his own mark along the way.
“It’s hard to say where the race will be won,” Nibali said. “The last week is very difficult as we all know, but there are also difficult individual stages from as early as the first week. Even the first stage here in Hungary isn’t a foregone conclusion with that little climb to the finish. There are lots of stages with small difficulties. I’m thinking of days like the stages to Potenza, Naples and Turin. They will be open to interpretation.”
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