Italian national coach Davide Cassani has travelled to the Vuelta a España to study the form of expected team leaders Vincenzo Nibali and Fabio Aru, as he tries to build a competitive squadra that can fight for the rainbow jersey at the UCI Road World Championships.
The elite men's road race in Innsbruck, Austria, is just four weeks away. The 268km race includes seven climbs on the Olympia circuit with the final 3.2km steep climb of Höttinger Höll expected to decide the race. The narrow road has an average gradient of 11.5 per cent, with the steepest sections at over 25 per cent. It is followed by a testing descent to the finish in central Innsbruck.
La Gazzetta dello Sport described Cassani's mood as "not black but saddened grey" as he tries to understand if Nibali and Aru will be on form and competitive for the World Championships.
"I'd hoped to have more certainty a month out from the World Championships but for now I don't really have at all. But there are 27 days to the race and lots of things can change," Cassani said optimistically.
Nibali remains Cassani's designated team leader but the Bahrain-Merida rider has so far struggled at the Vuelta a España as he tries to find his legs after fracturing a vertebra at the Tour de France and undergoing surgery so he could start the Spanish Grand Tour.
Nibali finished in the gruppetto on Sunday's mountain finish at La Covatilla, while expected world championship rivals such as Alejandro Valverde, Nairo Quintana, Simon Yates and Thibaut Pinot all look on track to be contenders in Austria.
"He didn't look too bad but he's not used to suffering, he's used to winning. It's difficult for him to accept all the suffering without seeing the results," Cassani said.
"He can only continue to suffer not knowing how things will work out. The Vuelta was the only way for him to prepare for the World Championships."
Cassani plans to name the Italian national team on September 15 as the Vuelta ends with a final mountain stage in Andorra and a parade stage in Madrid. Nibali remains the Italian team leader, even if other riders may start the World Championships on equal footing.
"I've got two weeks to evaluate all the possibilities. For now, Vincenzo is our leader: we know who he is, what he's done and what he can do," Cassani said, hinting that Aru will have to step up if Nibali is not at his best.
"Fabio seems to be missing a bit of top end acceleration but he'll find that. I think he's on the road back to his best even if he's still suffering to mentally overcome what happened at the Giro d'Italia. It'll perhaps be difficult for him to win the Vuelta but he could finish in the top five. I'm obviously thinking about the world championships and he's one of the best we have for the climbs."
Moscon could join team in Innsbruck despite disciplinary action
Italy – like other leading nations – will field an eight-rider team in the elite men’s road race on Sunday, September 30. Cassani is also monitoring the form and ambitions of Davide Formolo, Dario Cataldo, Franco Pellizotti, Salvatore Puccio, Fabio Felline, Alessandro De Marchi, David Villella, Gianluca Brambilla, Valerio Conti, Damiano Caruso, Domenico Pozzovivo, Diego Ulissi and Giovanni Visconti.
Team Sky's Gianni Moscon is also on Cassani's long-list despite currently being banned from racing by the UCI after he was expelled from the Tour de France for striking Fortuneo-Samsic rider Elle Gesbert during stage 15.
Moscon’s ban ends on September 12 and he is set to return to racing at the Coppa Agostoni race in Italy on September 15. Moscon recently moved from Montecarlo to Innsbruck and has often trained on the World Championships course. Cassani seems ready to select him despite his disciplinary issues of the last 18 months that included the racial abuse of Kevin Reza at the 2017 Tour de Romandie and disqualification from the road race at the 2017 World Championships for taking a tow from the Italian team car after a crash.
"He's training at altitude on the Stelvio. I'll see him at the Coppa Agostoni and decide things," Cassani said.
"I'm sure he’s preparing carefully. My idea is to put him in the list of ten riders for our training camp that starts on September 23. The ideal thing would be for him to miss the team time trial championships so that by riding the Memorial Pantani and the Trofeo Matteotti, I can decide to select him or name him as a reserve."