Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) sealed victory in the Giro d'Italia with a solo win in the snow at the Tre Cime di Lavaredo. In doing so he showed his rivals and the world that he is the strongest rider in the race and that he deserves to ride into Brescia on Sunday in the maglia rosa.
While other big-name contenders crashed and faded during the three weeks of intense racing in the rain, cold and snow, the 28-year-old Sicilian rarely seemed to struggle, racing intelligently and within himself, and backed up by a strong Astana squad.
Speaking in the Rifugio Auronzo, further up from the snow covered finish line and tucked under the Tre Cime di Lavaredo rocky outcrop, Nibali mixed smiles, modesty and celebration, when talking about his victory in the snow.
"I've got a good lead and the Giro will finish with sprint tomorrow, so I'm overjoyed. I think it's epic, with a finish like today and with the heavy snow," he said.
"I'll need a bit of time to fully understand what I've achieved, that I've won the Giro and a Vuelta now. But all my places at the Giro and Tour de France made me believe that I'm a stage race rider. Winning the Giro makes me believe it even more."
Danilo Di Luca's positive doping test for EPO almost overshadowed Nibali's victory and despite being former teammates and friends in the past, Nibali has not been afraid to criticise him. However, he carefully avoided making any detailed judgment during his press conference.
"It's difficult to judge Danilo, I think we need to wait for the counter-analysis," he said.
"If there's something that pushed him to do what he did, we need to understand what it was. He seems to have lost sense of the ideals of life. There must be a reason. More than a cycling question, it's a human question."
Winning in the maglia rosa
Nibali won the mountain time trial on Thursday but also wanted to consecrate his Giro d'Italia victory with a road race win, while wearing the pink jersey. His teammates chased down the attacks and set the pace before he accelerated away in the final three kilometres of the climb.
"I don’t want to seem cocky. But in this Giro and on all the mountain finishes, I've always had a bit more than the others and so I always managed things. This time I wanted to leave my mark on the race," he said, revealing he used a lowest gear of 36x29 on the climb, pushing the 25 sprocket for much of the climb.
"I remembered that the last three kilometres were hard but I didn’t remember that they were that hard. The climb to the line never seemed to end.”
This year's Giro has been decimated by bad weather, with the mountain stage to Val Martello and the climbs of the Gavia and Stelvio cut from the race on Friday. Other climbs were lost and the racing affected. But Nibali refuted any suggestion that the weather had made this an easier Giro in some regard.
"When have you ever seen riders finish the Giro without a suntan or in long tights?" he asked slightly irked by the question.
"When it’s cold, you need to eat more and you suffer more. The cold plays a big part if there are lot of climbs or not."
"The snow made it another terrible day for everyone in the peloton today but fortunately it only snowed in the last five kilometres and the road was clear. I think it made this stage even more epic."
Nibali will reach Brescia with a lead of 4:43 on Rigoberto Uran (Team Sky) with Cadel Evans (BMC) slipping to third overall at 5:52.
Nibali gained time gradually on his overall rivals. He rarely seemed in difficulty but admitted that he was in trouble on stage seven to Pescara, when he crashed in the rain. Yet a day later, he excelled in the long time trial to Saltara, convincing himself that he could win the Giro.
"Nobody really saw it but after my second crash on the descent to Pescara I really suffered. It was difficult to get back on. I only made it in the last kilometre," he revealed.
"The time trial was the moment when I thought I could win this Giro. I did a good time trial, I hadn't lost anything to my closest rivals.
That's when I really started to believe I could do it."
No Tour de France this year
Some parts of the Italian media, and Astana team manager Alexandre Vinokourov, would love to see Nibali now go on to challenge for victory at the Tour de France.
He wisely rebuts any idea of spending July in France, knowing that good performances in Grand Tours don’t come easy and preferring to focus on the Vuelta a Espana and the world road race championships in Florence.
"I haven't spoken about it with Vino. But it's not in my plans or my thoughts," he said defiantly.
"My season started early, I've done loads of races too. You need to work hard to prepare for a Grand Tour and there are certain moments when you know that you need to rest."
"I like to prepare for one job at a time. The Tour de France needs a different kind of preparation. There are longer climbs, and a different race rhythm on the climbs too. You can’t just rock up and ride it."
"I'm happy to celebrate this Giro d'Italia victory for now. I don’t know how were going to celebrate yet but it already feels great to be a Giro d'Italia winner."