For almost two weeks, Vincenzo Nibali's apparent superiority at the Giro d'Italia had not been matched by his advantage in the overall standings but the Astana rider changed that with a startling performance in the stage 18 time trial from Mori to Polsa.
Since taking control of the maglia rosa in Saltara on stage 8, Nibali had cautiously played a short game, pilfering seconds and time bonuses where possible, but otherwise preferring to control his closest rivals. The shackles were thrown off in dramatic fashion in Thursday's uphill test, however, as he produced a grand gesture to take stage victory by 58 seconds from Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and extend his overall lead to 4:02 over Cadel Evans (BMC).
Indeed, the raw statistics only tell half the story, and Nibali provided a visual demonstration of his pre-eminence as he breathed down the neck of his three-minute man Evans in the rain-soaked closing kilometres. The Australian finished the stage a lowly 25th, 2:36 down on Nibali and – it seems – out of the reckoning for final overall victory.
"I think that Cadel Evans has hidden in the peloton a bit so far, so I didn't really know his real condition," Nibali said afterwards. "I thought he might do a bit better today but he was my reference point out on the course, and when I realised I was catching him, it made me push a little harder."
While the Polsa time trial evaded definition – too steep for the outright testers but too shallow for the pure climbers – Nibali was simply on another planet. At 28 years of age, he is approaching the peak of his powers but he has nonetheless made a striking leap in quality since his move to Astana, particularly as a time triallist.
"I've been testing material since the start of the year with Astana, I've spent entire days at the track, from morning to night, testing time trial equipment," said Nibali. "On top of that, the team leaves me very tranquillo and I can work calmly and get to races with a minimum of stress."
Already tranquillo to a fault, the final stages of the Giro look to set to be something of a prolonged coronation for Nibali, with Evans and Rigoberto Uran (third at 4:12) the only men within five minutes in the overall standings. "I want to maintain my advantages and that will be easier to do with the gains I made today," he said. "But there's also the unknown element of the weather, which adds to the difficulty."
On that note, the Gavia and Stelvio are set to be cut from the parcours of stage 19, while Saturday's stage to Tre Cime di Lavaredo may also be altered. Given Nibali's condition, however, cutting those mighty passes hardly seems likely to alter the Giro's increasingly inevitable outcome one way or another.
"From my point of view, I can say that it doesn't change much. I feel good and I feel that I can manage the race with those climbs," Nibali said. "But then if they cut some of the climbs from the stages, maybe it will be easier for my team to manage the race. But I showed my condition today, so I'm tranquillo."
As Nibali's grip on the maglia rosa has tightened, the level of expectation that surrounds him has heightened. Uncomfortable – and unfair – comparisons have been drawn between Nibali and the late Marco Pantani, and certain sections of the local press have called upon him to garland his Giro with a solo road stage victory.
When it was put to Nibali during his winner's press conference in Polsa that he was the symbol of an Italian cycling renaissance, he flashed a bashful smile. "In this Giro, we've had a lot of Italian stage wins," Nibali insisted. "I'm enjoying this, on the evidence of this Giro, I think we're all relaunching, and we're all finding the right path."
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