Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) may have failed to produce one of his famous downhill attacks on Monday in Andorra, but a late surge by the Shark of Messina nonetheless has seen the Italian clinch the 2017 Vuelta's first mountain stage.
Thundering out of the group of nine frontrunners in the streets of Andorra la Vella, Nibali claimed what is his third victory of the season, and his first since May in the Giro d'Italia, where he won a mountain stage.
At the Giro, however, Nibali did not quite reach his expected level in the overall battle, finishing a solid third but rarely looking as if he could challenge overall winner Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb). This was particularly surprising given the Giro is a Grand Tour which he has won twice, including in 2016 with a last-minute bounceback of spectacular proportions.
Perhaps Nibali's strongest GC performance of the season may be yet to come, in the Vuelta a España, where he triumphed in 2010, claimed seventh in 2011, then finished a narrowly defeated second in 2013. Thanks to Monday's stage 3 win and the time bonus that comes with it, he's now lying fifth at 10 seconds back and must be considered one of Froome's top rivals for the outright victory.
"It was a different kind of win and I had to make a big effort to get it, because there were so many different riders there," Nibali said afterwards.
"I was a bit behind when Sky started powering away on the last climb and I had to fight my way back to the front, but I knew I had to get there if I want to go on fighting for the overall classification.
"It was very important to get a win, both for me and for the squad, particularly after losing Javi Moreno in a crash yesterday. That's a major loss for the team.
"But I hadn't planned on the stage working out like that at all, I was just fighting to see what I could get. It's pleasing, because it shows my form is better than I thought. I had done a good ride in the Tour de Pologne and I had done a training camp beforehand that went well but I didn't expect to be this good, though. It's not at all easy to have such a tough series of climbs so early in a Grand Tour.
Nibali paid tribute to Bahrain-Merida advisor Joaquim Rodríguez, a long-standing Andorra resident and former multiple Vuelta finisher who had, he said, given him a great deal of advice on the climbs. "I knew them from other races, but having Purito there is an enormous help," Nibali said.
Looking further down the line, Nibali warned that all and any of the upcoming stages in la Vuelta could present a serious challenge. "There's no one day that's particularly dangerous, they all are," he concluded. But either way, having been widely tipped as one of the freshest GC contenders, Nibali has lived up to those expectations so far – and the 2017 Vuelta is only three stages old.
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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