It was a day of rest at the Giro d'Italia but there was no break from the obligations of the maglia rosa for Vincenzo Nibali on Monday as he held forth at a press conference at the Astana team hotel in Valloire, at the foot of the mighty Col du Galibier.
On paper, Nibali's lead of 1:26 over Cadel Evans (BMC) is far from insurmountable but on the road, the Sicilian has appeared impregnable since taking hold of the pink jersey after the Saltara time trial last week.
Nibali has spent much of the race quietly keeping home expectations in check, however, and although just six stages away from a maiden Giro victory, he was careful to stress the potential pitfalls in the race's final week as it snakes its way into the Dolomites.
"There are some very important climbs in the final week, with three tough days in particular: the Polsa time trial, the stage to Val Martello and the stage to Tre Cime di Lavaredo," Nibali said. "These are hard stages, so you have to be attentive, defend yourself and then maybe try and gain some time on your rivals if there's a chance."
The first of that troika of key stages is the mountain time trial from Mori to Polsa on Thursday. After beating Evans in the Saltara time trial and distancing him on the summit finish at the Jafferau on Saturday, Nibali was optimistic about his chances in the 20.6km test. "A mountain time trial is always difficult to interpret, but I would be more worried if it was a normal, flatter time trial because Evans has shown that he's strong there," Nibali said. "Still, he's strong in a cronoscalata too."
The Giro's tappone comes on the penultimate day, when the race crosses the Costalunga and Giau en route to a finish at the imposing Tre Cime di Lavaredo, which features for the first time since 2007. "I did Tre Cime in 2007 when I was at Liquigas with Di Luca and he won the Giro," Nibali said. "The last three kilometres are very tough, and they're even harder because of the climbs we go over beforehand, so we'll all be tired by the time we get there."
Nibali finished seven minutes down on stage winner Riccardo Riccò on Tre Cime di Lavaredo in 2007 en route to 19th place overall in his debut Giro as a raw 22-year-old. Asked if cycling had changed in the intervening six years, Nibali acknowledged that the style of racing has altered since his beginnings.
"From a human point of view, it's different, even the way races are ridden has changed. Today people look for breaks and the peloton lets them go, but then they tire up front and the fresher riders behind catch them," Nibali said. "But I think the big riders are still there fighting for wins. Look at Cadel Evans. He was strong before and he's still strong now, so the level of Grand Tour riders level is always very high."
While Nibali has scarcely made an error through the opening two weeks of the Giro, his Astana squad has not always offered the kind of support anticipated before the race, with a number of riders suffering from illness. There were signs of improvement on Sunday's haul up the Galibier, however, and the team now has a rest day in which to recover its forces.
"Fabio Aru is better now although Tiralongo is still a bit ill with a slight temperature and a cold, so he can't give 100% for now," Nibali said. "But the team is ok now. Valerio Agnoli and other climbers are staying with me, like they showed yesterday."
In spite of the problems suffered by his teammates, Nibali himself admitted that he has not yet been placed in real difficulty during this Giro, which has already seen Bradley Wiggins (Sky) and Ryder Hesjedal's (Garmin-Sharp) challenges grind to a halt during the wet and cold second week of racing.
"We'll all given it everything at some point but I've never really been in crisis," Nibali said. "In general, everything's gone well, I've stayed tranquillo. The first three stages were the hardest, they were very nervous days run off at a very high tempo."
Before taking his leave, Nibali was pressed on whether he might consider altering his pre-established programme and lining up at the Tour de France if he succeeds in carrying the maglia rosa all the way to Brescia. With the world championships on home roads in Florence in September, however, Nibali was cold on the idea.
"I only want to think about finishing the Giro at the moment, but I've always said that I want to ride the Worlds and I want to be in great form there," he said. "I've done a lot of racing to prepare for the Giro and I've already spent a lot of days away from home between training camps and races. If I rode the Tour I'd have to train in the mountains straightaway to be at my best, but then I wouldn't be at my best for the Worlds."
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