Vincenzo Nibali played down his chances of a third Giro d'Italia title, refusing to say he is targeting victory due to a strong sense of superstition. Yet, as he fielded questions from the media on Wednesday afternoon, 'Lo Squalo' – The Shark – looked cool, collected, and ready to get on with the racing, even if the death of close friend Michele Scarponi has left a mark on his morale and a hint of sadness in his eyes.
Nibali took centre stage at a press conference organised in a luxury hotel on the Alghero seafront. He unveiled a new gold-plated Merida Scultura bike and sat patiently through a string of presentations about Bahrain as a tourist resort and business centre before talking about the Giro d'Italia.
"I think people know what my dream would be," he said when asked about his goal for the race.
"In truth, I want to try to finish on the podium. It won't be easy but we've all worked hard to be at our best for the Giro. We know we face some big rivals – we're aware of that. The Giro is a long challenge; it's 21 days, with lots of unknowns. [Race director] Mauro Vegni has added something special this year that wasn't there before. It's harder than in recent years."
Some of the Italian media in the room were shocked that Nibali was not aiming for the maglia rosa.
"A place on the podium would be enough?" one asked.
"I'm superstitious…" Nibali replied with a smile.
"It's actually not easy to finish on the top step. But when you've done everything possible, worked hard and the team worked hard, you shouldn't have any regrets. My idea is to be cautious. The Giro is very long, we've got to take it day by day and analyse things as they change. If I don't win, second and third is still an honourable result."
Nibali won the Giro d'Italia in 2013 and 2016 and is clearly happy to be back racing on home roads in May.
"The Giro has got that something extra that makes you feel at home. I obviously missed it when I didn't ride it," he explained. "I'm happy to be in Sardinia, it's great weather and we can't wait to ride the 100th edition of the Giro d'Italia."
Nibali and his Bahrain-Merida teammates rode for three hours on Wednesday morning. Like everyone, Nibali is keen to keep his legs turning, knowing that the first mountain stage near the edge of the Mount Etna volcano next Tuesday will be the first real test for all the overall contenders.
A dream scenario for Nibali and Bahrain-Merida would be for him to win the Mount Etna stage, gain time on his rivals and ride into his hometown of Messina the day after in the leader's pink jersey. It is possible, but Nibali knows that overall victory in Milan on May 28 is far more important than a day of hometown glory.
"It's something special to finish a stage in my home town, with a finishing circuit, too. It makes me happy to finish there – for me, for my fans, for my city and for my parents. It's unique, almost unrepeatable," he said, adding one big caveat.
"However, I prefer to take things day by day and see how I feel. I think it's important to be consistent in this Giro d'Italia. The Giro is very long, there are a lot of difficult stages ahead of us.
"Of course, the stage to Etna is a big day. It includes 4000 metres of climbing. It'll be the first head-to-head fight, so we'll see how I am and how my rivals are. It's a complicated stage to get right coming after a rest day. It's 180km and so not short. It's the first important step of the Giro.
"This year's stage is different to 2011 (when Alberto Contador won the stage). The side we ride is completely different, Six years ago the gradient was easier, this time it steps up several times."
Defying the odds
The international bookmakers have, surprisingly, made Nairo Quintana a 2-1 favourite to win the Giro d'Italia, with Nibali a distant 8-1 second favourite. Nibali did not seem perturbed by the odds and also named the Movistar rider as his biggest rival, trying to pass the pressure onto the Colombian's shoulders.
"My biggest rival of all is Quintana. Then just behind him [Mikel] Landa, though it depends on how his form is now growing, then [Geraint] Thomas and then all the others who have raced in the last few weeks and have been building their form," Nibali explained.
"Kruijswijk was a surprise last year but we know him now and so things will be different, we won't give him as much space. Then there's also [Tom] Dumoulin, [Bauke] Mollema, Tejay van Garderen. There are a lot of good riders here at the Giro d'Italia this year."
Nibali hinted that he could see at least one chink in Quintana armour.
"Sometimes he doesn't have a great day," Nibali suggested, continuing to send messages to his rivals and play pre-race mind games.
"It's difficult to read his expression, to understand when he's good or bad, but sometimes he's not on a great day and he's paid for it in the past. Of course, other times he has great days and is unbeatable."
Nibali praised his Bahrain-Merida team, insisting that veterans Franco Pellizotti and Kanstantsin Siutsou – 10th overall in last year's Giro d'Italia – will be his key support riders in the mountains. Surprisingly, Nibali admitted he would miss former Astana teammate Fabio Aru, who will miss the Giro d'Italia due to a knee injury.
"Two days ago we rode together but he's just started riding again after a 15-day stop and so it was very difficult for him to ride the Giro. I feel sorry for him. There could have been a duel between us. I'll miss him because he could have been a great ally in certain situations."
For sure, Nibali will miss the presence of Michele Scarponi in the Giro d'Italia. The two were close friends, despite Scarponi opting to stay with Astana, and Nibali was still holding in his personal grief after Scarponi's tragic death while training near his home on April 22.
"It's difficult to speak about it because what happened is still fresh in my mind," Nibali said.
"We think about him whenever we ride. We're trying to work through what is a tragic moment. It's difficult to find the right words. We're obviously thinking about Scarponi's family. We want to offer them our full support."
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