While the Tour de France heads towards Paris at the weekend, Vincenzo Nibali will be on a plane from Rome to Tokyo with his Italian teammates, convinced that two weeks of intense racing is enough to give the form needed to target an Olympic medal in the road race.
Nibali opted to head home during the second rest day in Andorra after a last shot at a stage win on the stage to Andorra. He was in the decisive break but was unable to go with Sepp Kuss when the American climber attacked on the Col de Beixalis.
Nibali had started the Tour de France needing to rediscover his morale and aggressive racing style, and to secure a place in the Italian quintet for the road race. A series of attacks during the Tour convinced Italian national coach Davide Cassani to select Nibali for the five-rider squad, even if he may not be the Italian team’s leader.
Also selected for the men’s road race are Gianni Moscon, Alberto Bettiol, Damiano Caruso and Giulio Ciccone. Bettiol will also ride the subsequent time trial alongside Filippo Ganna, who will then go onto ride the team pursuit on the track.
"Racing hard at the Tour de France has really helped peak for the Tokyo Olympics. There’s never a quiet or easy day at the Tour, you’ve always got to suffer. That’s what I needed, and I feel my form has improved significantly since the start in Brest," Nibali told La Gazzetta dello Sport.
"I tried to win a stage, it didn’t work out but helped my legs and my morale. It was all useful pain and suffering.
"It wasn't easy to decide to leave the Tour early but arriving in Tokyo earlier than the other riders could be a slight advantage. We’ll be able to see the route and acclimatise better."
Nibali is the only Italian to ride the Tour de France. Moscon, Bettiol, Caruso and Ciccone have been training at altitude and will ride two stages of this week’s Settimana Ciclistica Italiana in Sardinia before traveling to Tokyo with Nibali.
"Our route to Tokyo was different but the goal is the same: be at our best for the road race," Nibali explained.
"I fractured my hand in April and that wrecked my plans. I needed the Tour to get back to my best, while the others trained at altitude. We’re confident we can combine to do well in Tokyo."
Nibali was the leader of the Italian team in Rio five years ago and looked set to fight for a medal only to crash out on the final descent, fracturing his collarbone.
The so-called Shark of Messina is now 36 and is likely to end his career in 2022, perhaps riding for Astana-Premier Tech. He has struggled to be competitive in the last 18 months and accepts that Italy will have several leaders in the hilly Tokyo road race on Saturday July 24.
"We’ll speak about our roles in the team, but I think we’ll have several leaders. The important thing is to be clear and precise. Caruso had a great Giro, Moscon is back to his best, Ciccone is a talent and so is Bettiol," he explained, keeping his personal ambitions to himself.
"The important thing is that the team is united, just like the Italian football team was at the Euro Championships.
"Italy wasn’t the favourite to win the football and we aren't the favourite for the Olympic road race but that’s okay. I don't like to make bold statements but if people support us, I don't think they’ll be disappointed."
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