Vincenzo Nibali proved he is the most promising Grand Tour rider in the peloton during 2010 by finishing third in the Giro d'Italia and winning the Vuelta.
The likeable Sicilian is no longer Ivan Basso's understudy at Liquigas-Cannondale and in 2011 he is expected to confirm his talent and challenge for pink jersey at the Giro d'Italia next May, while Basso has one last tilt at the Tour de France.
The extra pressure and responsibility could make it harder for him to succeed. However for now, he seems to be taking it all in his stride.
"I can feel that there's more pressure on me now and more attention from the media and the tifosi. Everybody expects a lot but it's a nice problem to have. I was getting tired of being the next big thing," he told Cyclingnews during an exclusive interview at the Liquigas-Cannondale training camp in Sardinia.
"There are good and bad sides to all the attention. But I'm trying to stay focused, keep things under control and stay true to myself. I'm at another level now, I can feel that, but it hasn’t happened over night. I showed I had talent before turning professional and then I finished 20th in my first ever Tour de France in 2008 and 11th in my first ever Giro. I was also seventh in the Tour last year and then third in the Giro this year, before going onto win the Vuelta. That's a steady progression."
"There's no doubt 2010 was a breakthrough year for me but I think there's a lot more to it than just the victories on my palmares. I think it was important thing was the way I stepped up and really proved what I could do as a rider."
"To be honest I still think and hope I can improve further. I haven't reached my limits yet. I've come on a lot in the last 18 months but I think I'm still maturing and hopefully there's more to come."
Little time for holidays
It is less than three months since Nibali won the Vuelta but he is already back on the bike and already training seriously for 2011.
This year he started racing in January, with victory at the Tour of San Luis in Argentina, and ended it at the Tour of Lombardy after also riding for Italy at the world championships in Australia. He's had little time for a holiday in the sun but insists he is ready for another long season in the saddle.
"I didn't really go on holiday because I had the plate removed from the collarbone I broke in 2009 and that took some time," he explains. "But I had ten days with my family in Sicily and had about a month and a half off from serious training. That's quite a lot. I've done my first test here at the camp and the numbers showed that I'm not in bad shape. I feel ready to start all over again."
"At the moment I'm mixing endurance rides with some fine tuning of my position on the bike and working on my flexibility and core strength. We've been doing early morning stretching sessions and then riding before lunch and then sponsors presentation and media work in the afternoon. We've even squeezed in a few English lessons but unfortunately my cycling will always be better than my English."
"The team is already coming together. Our line-up hasn't undergone any major changes for 2011 and so we already know each other pretty well and are already a tight unit. We're all set for 2011."
Giro, Tour and Vuelta
The Liquigas-Cannondale team has yet to confirm that Nibali will target the Giro and Basso will focus on the Tour de France, but that looks the most likely scenario. Nibali will then either ride the Tour de France in support of Basso or return to the Vuelta.
"I've got the Giro in my head as my big objective of 2011 but a final decision on our final goals will only be made in the New Year," Nibali said, carefully staying on message.
"My big goals will depend on several factors: first of all my form, then the team and what space there is in the team for me. If I ride the Giro, I want to ride to win it, that's pretty obvious but I understand it's not totally my decision."
"I'm going to follow more or less the same programme in 2010 but with about five days less racing. Instead of Argentina, I'll start my season a few weeks later at the Giro di Sardegna or at the Trofeo Laigueglia. Then I'll build up for the Ardennes classics and the Giro."
"I'll decide on riding the Tour after the Giro but it's a tough call. If I ride the Vuelta again, it'll mean I'll have a very long season but if I ride the Tour it'll make it a very hard season. It's not an easy decision to make because I don't want to get it wrong. 2010 was my year but I want 2011 to be my year too."