The reasons for Vincenzo Nibali's collapse at the Giro d'Italia remain a mystery, with medical tests expected soon, to reveal if the Astana rider is suffering from some kind of infection that has hit his form and ended his chances of winning the maglia rosa.
Nibali's time loss in Andalo on Tuesday ended any hopes of success, and even the most nationalistic Italian media here at the Giro d'Italia have accepted that the Shark from Messina has lost his bite.
His problems have raised 'mille domande' - a thousand questions, and also sparked some criticism. The strongest came from former world champion Paolo Bettini, who writes a daily column every day for Gazzetta dello Sport during the Giro d'Italia. It is usually just a few insightful words in a box on a page but today Bettini has half a page and pulls no punches as he analyses what could be behind Nibali's poor form.
Bettini dismissed suggestions that Nibali has set too many objectives for 2016, and so is not at his best in this Giro d'Italia because he is also targeting the Olympic road race. He described Nibali's decision to attack during Tuesday stage as a 'tactical error' because he had perhaps failed to recover from his huge effort on Saturday's stage in the Dolomites to Corvara and his pain in the time trial on Sunday. He even questioned Nibali’s decision to switch from 172.5 to 175mm cranks for this season.
Bettini admitted he did not know any details of Nibali's training but did not hold back.
"Observing Nibali at the Giro del Trentino just a few days before the start of the Giro d'Italia, you got the idea that he was behind with his form, that something wasn't right. It's true that it takes time assimilate altitude training but there seems to be something else," Bettini wrote.
"Yesterday, Ulissi finished ahead of him in Andalo. I've a lot of respect for Diego but when Ulissi finishes ahead of Nibali, it means that he wasn't in a great condition.
"On Saturday, he did a huge 50-minute effort, a kind of time trial and no doubt spent a lot of time over his threshold. After a long hard stage that lasted more than six hours, you pay for an effort like that. He clearly suffered in the mountain time trial, and then struggled to recover on the rest day. Because of all of these factors, it would probably have been better to stay hidden on the wheels and not attack yesterday, saving himself for the big mountain stages on Friday and Saturday.
"I don't understand why a rider who has won everything during his career decides to change his cranks at the age of 31. It seems a risk to me. Everyone knows that if you extend your reach your pedal stroke changes. Vincenzo has long legs, and so careful studies are needed before making a change. 172.5mm is the ideal length for him, with 175mm crank perhaps used for a flat time trial. I'm surprised by his decision and if it had been suggested to me, I'd have refused. You've always got to think carefully before changing your equipment; that's why I always used an old-style saddle. When you do change something, you've got to accept that I might not work out okay."
It is believed that Nibali will leave the Astana team to become the team leader of the new Bahrain team being created around him. Bettini questions if this is also part of the problem.
"Everyone knows that his relationship with Vinokourov is not idyllic and there have been reports of him leaving Astana going around for a long time," Bettini writes, raising lots of questions but giving few answers.
"I've got a feeling that there isn't the ideal ambient around him for him to do his best. I ask, is this Bahrain project solid? I don't know the details but I hope it is. However, any delays can get to you. I know, I was involved in the Alonso project that failed to happen. Vincenzo won the Tour of Oman and its right to ask how important was that win to give the Bahrain team project a push. But was it important for his build-up to the Giro d'Italia? Sometimes when a rider's contract is up, they feel under even more pressure to get results and this hasn't helped Vincenzo."
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