Italy expects as Nibali steps up to the plate

Bradley Wiggins’ time trialling prowess looms large over this year’s Giro d’Italia. Just like Miguel Indurain in 1992, the reigning Tour de France champion arrives in Italy expected by many to flex his muscle in the first long time trial and carry pink all the way to the finish.

And, as in 1992, the man who finished third in the previous year’s Tour is charged with leading the home challenge. For Claudio Chiappucci, read Vincenzo Nibali.

Chiappucci fell some way short of beating Indurain on that occasion, reaching Milan over five minutes down in second place, but Nibali is bullish about his chances of upsetting the odds twenty-one years later. Buoyed by a pugnacious victory at the Giro del Trentino last week and backed by a strong Astana team, Nibali is hopeful of taking the second grand tour victory of his career after the 2010 Vuelta a España.

While most anticipate that Nibali will enter the mountains on the back foot after the 55 kilometre time trial in from Gabicce Mare to Saltara next weekend, the Sicilian pointed out that the rolling, technical course means that the pure time triallists’ gains ought to be limited.

“The Saltara time trial is a very difficult time trial because it’s on a very nervous course,” Nibali told Cyclingnews. “It’s not a straightforward time trial where you go as hard and fast as you can. There could be a bit of levelling out and riders who aren’t specialists could defend themselves a bit."

Nibali was unwilling to put a number on what would constitute a successful damage limitation exercise in the Marche next week. While he acknowledged Wiggins’ form, he stressed that the Saltara course is very different to the Besancon time trial at last year’s Tour when the Briton put 2:07 into Nibali in just 41.5km.

“I don’t know and I don’t want to say what the time gaps will be,” Nibali said. “It will be very hard. Wiggins showed he was going well at Trentino and he’ll be good at the Giro. If he’s going as well as at the Tour time trials last year, then it will be very tough but this isn’t a very flat time trial like those, so you can limit the damage.”

The steep gradients of the Dolomites are also very different to the gentler pitches of the Alps and Pyrenees. At the Tour last July, Sky’s men in black all but blockaded the race in the mountains, but Nibali believes that strategy might prove more difficult to put into action in Italy.

“The Giro is much different to the Tour,” Nibali said. “There are more opportunities for attackers than at the Tour and the climbs are more difficult, even if they’re a little shorter. It’s always good to be able to attack and if it’s worth the effort to gain some precious seconds then that’s even better.”

Those lofty peaks are still two weeks away, however, and for now, Nibali’s focus in the Giro’s opening weekend in the Gulf of Naples. Saturday’s scenic opener in Naples’ seafront Mergellina district ought to be little more than a promenade, but the serious action begins with the team time trial in Ischia on Sunday.

“I don’t know what the course is really like until I see it, but the team have told me something about it,” Nibali said. “I know that it will be a difficult team time trial and the group will have to be very compact and united.”

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