As he sank into a seat outside the Astana team car just past the brow of the finishing hill above Quriyat, Vincenzo Nibali could already put his second place on stage two of the Tour of Oman behind Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) into perspective.
“He made this acceleration, in progressione, right in the last 100 metres and, well, I’m a climber…” Nibali trailed off and smiled. Nothing to be done.
Nibali was part of the elite leading group that was already taking shape as the pace ratcheted upwards on the approach to the 2.8-kilometre haul to the line. Under the impetus of Dimension Data and CCC-Sprandi, a further winnowing process took place as the road climbed sharply.
Only the strongest remained in contention on the stirring finishing straight, where the bare mountainside seemed to form a natural terrace, and Boasson Hagen, as impressive as he was unfortunate at last week’s Tour of Qatar, scorched to an emphatic sprint victory ahead of Nibali and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC).
“When I saw him going, I just said, no, I can’t go after him,” Nibali admitted matter-of-factly. “His acceleration was very good. He’s coming from a couple of years where he was a bit so-so, maybe he had some physical problems, but we all know that Boasson Hagen, when he’s going well, is very fast. On a finish like this, he was going to be faster than everyone.”
At this early juncture of a season built around the Giro d’Italia and the Rio 2016 Olympics, Nibali’s focus is on performance rather than on results, and he betrayed little disappointment at missing out on the win here. Indeed, his effervescent start here – allied to a Tour de San Luis where he finished in crescendo – is a marked improvement on his early-season at the same point in both 2014 and 2015.
“I’m feeling good, but I’m here without any pressure, so I’m not going to say that I’m going to win. The objective is to do well, whatever that is,” said Nibali, who now lies second overall to boot, 4 seconds behind Boasson Hagen.
A winner on Green Mountain in 2012, when he missed out on overall victory to Peter Velits by a solitary second, Nibali lined up this week as one of the favourites for final honours, and has done nothing in the opening two days to diminish that status. While his season will be judged on the battles yet to come, one senses that a victory in a skirmish such as this would be appreciated nonetheless.
“Green Mountain’s a climb I know well. I won there once, and I’ve been up there a lot of other times. The legs are responding well. I’ve worked well up to now,” Nibali said. “Obviously, the Tour of Oman isn’t an objective for me but when you’ve got the legs, everything comes a bit easier to you. I’d like to pick up wins, for my own satisfaction and for the team.”
The searing pace in the final kilometres of Wednesday’s stage caught out a number of riders, including Richie Porte (BMC) and the Etixx-QuickStep duo of Dan Martin and overnight leader Bob Jungels. Green Mountain will, as ever, prove decisive, but some definition has already been given to the general classification.
“We saw Richie was very strong at the Tour Down Under, and maybe we might have expected a bit more from him here, but I don’t know, I can’t give a judgement on Richie,” Nibali said. “The others were all more or less in the finale. I saw [Tom] Dumoulin who is thinking about the GC, [Domenico] Pozzovivo is looking very good and [Romain] Bardet is up there always.”
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.