Vincenzo Nibali promised to race with 'calma e sangue freddo' – 'cool and collected' in the string of five mountain stages that will reveal if the Sicilian, or anyone else, can take the lead of the Giro d'Italia from Tom Dumoulin.
Nibali faced a barrage of questions from the Italian media on the final rest day after a morning ride up the Presolana climb in the quiet Val Seriana. The Italian media and tifosi are desperate for at least a home stage winner and are used to seeing Nibali go on to win Grand Tours in the final week of the race.
Nibali remained calm and collected while in the spotlight, mixing blank stares and squints as he listened to questions and gathered his thoughts.
Last year the rest day press conference in the Dolomites turned into an inquisition after a disastrous mountain time trial to Alpe di Siusi. Of course, Nibali managed to turn things around afterwards and when Steven Kruijswijk crashed in over the top of the Colle dell'Agnello, he gained time and then snatched the pink jersey from Esteban Chaves on the final mountain stage to Sant'Anna di Vinadio.
The Italian journalists wanted to know if Nibali can do it again for a third time, after losing time to Dumoulin in the Sagrantino time trial, to Nairo Quintana on the climb to Blockhaus, and to others on the fast finish up to Oropa.
After Sunday's stage to Bergamo, Nibali showed signs of defeatism. On Monday he insisted he was just being realistic.
"I feel good for sure. I'm not pessimistic; I'm trying to be realistic. If someone cracks and suffers one day, then that's the moment to attack but it could also happen to me," he warned.
"This week is a lot harder that what we've faced so far. It's more suited to riders with real resistance and experience. I think I have that and so we'll see what happens out on the road. I need a hard race to be at my best and for sure the terrain is there in the final stages. There'll be far more of a natural selection compared to stages we've raced so far. I'll need courage and nerves of steel and I'll have to ride well. Nobody can think of attacking 100km from the finish. If races are hard then it becomes a battle of survival."
Yet to impress
Nibali has yet to impress at the Giro d'Italia. He and his coach Paolo Slongo claim that his form and his numbers are up there, if not better than last year, but he has struggled on the one off fast climbs to the finish at Blockhaus and Oropa. He seems to have a lower power to weight ratio on steep climbs and a lack of top end power on the easier climbs. He goes into the red and starts producing lactic acid while Dumoulin and Quintana are able to race longer and harder.
"Compared to last year I think my form is better," Nibali argued.
"If I analyse my race so far, we've done three mountain finish where we were all fresh at the foot of the climb and with lots of power in our legs. Etna was about control, the Blockhaus was constant then crazy in the final kilometre and Oropa was similar.
"We produced a VAM of almost 1900 the other day to Oropa but I started producing lactic acid in the last kilometre and when that happens you've got to save yourself as well as you can. The others went stronger and I don't know why, maybe it's my age. I've got a few grey hairs now after all."
Nibali is currently fourth overall, 3:40 down on Dumoulin but only 59 second behind Quintana and 19 seconds back on Thibaut Pinot. A podium spot is possible if not unlikely. Yet Nibali makes it clear that it's all or nothing for him. Even if a podium would be a great result for the new Bahrain-Merida team on its Grand Tour debut.
"If I finish third or fourth it doesn't change much for me. The podium is nice but I've won the Giro d'Italia twice, I've won a Vuelta and a Tour de France. I've won Tirreno-Adriatico twice, Il Lombardia and other races. Yet people are still critical even though the race is not over. I don't understand it," he bemoaned.
The plans for the Stelvio
From Nibali's hotel the slopes of the Val Seriana obscured the view towards Bormio and up to the Stelvio but the highest climb of this year's Giro d'Italia is only hours away and the riders will cover it twice, from different sides during Tuesday's 222km stage.
Nibali was peppered with questions about his race strategy, possible attacks and outcomes for when the riders descend to the finish in Bormio. His most frequent answer was the same "I don't know" but he indicated that he expects attacks and that his Bahrain-Merida team and Quintana's strong Movistar squad could well ride to ensure the stage is especially testing for Dumoulin and his Team Sunweb squad.
"The stage is very hard, there's the Mortirolo and well all know about the two times up the Stelvio – it's a legendary climb – all after a rest day. It could be dangerous. But perhaps nothing will happen but the day will stay in people's legs and so affect the stages that follow," he explained.
"I think Quintana will do everything to distance Dumoulin so he can pull back time. So far I've tried to defend as much I could and I'm a minute down on Quintana, that's not huge. For sure Nairo will try to drop me, too. He's riding well and is on form. Pinot will do his race too, we don't know for GC or podium. Others could gain time, too. The level of riders at the Giro d'Italia is high. Of course, nobody turns up on poor for at a Grand Tour these days."
Nibali indicated he would not work to help Dumoulin chase down Quintana or Pinot if the stage turns into a mano-a-mano battle on the final climb of the day.
"If there is a simple battle and Dumoulin is alone, the pink jersey has to close [down] everyone who attacks him. If I'm fourth and he asks me to work I won't do a turn, because finishing third or fourth won't change my life. That strategy is pretty logical I think.
"Quintana can revolutionise the classification and he's got the team to do it. But of course, well see what really happens out on the road. Dumoulin is clearly on great form. We'll see how he does in the mountains, which are hard for him. But he's got a good lead. We can't fool ourselves, it won't be easy for anyone to close the gap and gain time on Dumoulin before the final time trial."
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