To coincide with the Giro d’Italia, an Italian telecommunications company has organised a competition asking fans to vote for the most aggressive rider on each stage. They perhaps should have foreseen the obvious catch in their strategy: for Italians, there can only be one winner of this Giro.
Four stages in, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) had been voted as Ciclista del Cuore (favourite rider, or literally: ‘rider of the heart’) four times out of a possible four. And so before the start each morning, the Sicilian sheepishly accepts his prize – a new smartphone – on the signing-on podium, to tumultuous cheers from the gathered tifosi.
There have been fewer gifts on offer out on the road, mind, as Nibali found when he lost four seconds at Benevento on stage 5 after the peloton broke up on the finishing circuit, where only 12 riders – including Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and dark horse Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) – were awarded the same time as winner André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal).
“It was quite nervous in the finale but nothing special,” Nibali said as he sat on the steps of the Astana bus afterwards. “I was together with [Mikel] Landa. I didn’t see where the gap was formed and I didn’t see how it opened up, because four seconds are really a lot. The peloton was lined out but from what I could make out, I didn’t see gaps.”
At that point, barely half an hour after the stage, the official results had not yet been published and – with the afternoon schedule’s polemica quotient doubtless in mind – one television reporter wondered if Nibali had grounds to appeal the lost time and restore the small buffer he built up over Valverde in Friday’s opening time trial.
“If it’s confirmed, then so be it,” said Nibali, who had little desire for a melodrama at this early juncture. “But there was a crash in the finale too and normally when there’s a crash they neutralise the times. We didn’t sit up [after the crash], we continued right to the finish as normal, and it was only right to do that. But if the rules are respected, they’d give us all the same time. If not, then 4 seconds aren’t a lot and that’s ok too.”
Nibali remains in 6th place overall, still 26 seconds down on pink jersey Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin), but he is now just one second and one position ahead of Valverde, the man many in the peloton have highlighted as the favourite for stage honours – and the ten-second winner’s time bonus – on Thursday’s first summit finish at Roccaraso.
The climb has not featured at the Giro since Moreno Argentin won ahead of Franco Chioccioli back in 1987, but when Nibali’s teammate Michele Scarponi was asked for his prediction during RAI television’s Processo alla Tappa programme, he pointed to analyst Stefano Garzelli and said: “If Stefano was riding, it would be his sort of the finale.” That is, tough enough to force a selection but not hard enough for a lone rider to break clear. Ideal terrain, then, for a Valverde sprint.
“The Roccaraso stage could tell us something and it could tell us nothing,” Nibali said back at the Astana bus, where a raucous crowd of locals had slipped their way inside the cordon and were now proffering selfie sticks and autograph books into the media scrum.
“After Roccaraso, there’ll be a lot of other big mountaintop finishes to come,” Nibali continued. “We’ll just keep trying to ride like we’ve ridden up to now. We’ve been going well as a team.”
The clouds lay heavily over Benevento by the time the peloton reached the finish of stage 5, and there is the distinct possibility that the first summit finish of this year’s Giro could be fought out beneath a deluge on Thursday afternoon.
“I won’t say that I’d prefer it to be raining but maybe it would suit me,” Nibali said, before fending off another question on whether he might go on the offensive on the climb. “I don’t know, we’ll have to see in the race.”
As the press pack made its retreat soon afterwards, the tifosi swarmed forward towards Nibali. A ciclista del cuore’s day is never done.
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.