The crowds in Turin called Vincenzo Nibali's name time and time again as he rode back to the Astana Qazaqstan team bus. The Italian tifosi were keen to create contact with the best Italian rider of a generation and somehow be part of his emotional day in the attack during stage 14 among the top overall contenders at the Giro d'Italia.
With his retirement confirmed for the end of the season, a weight seems to have fallen away from the Sicilian's shoulders, releasing him from the emotions and pressure of carrying a nation's hopes of success.
After being hit hard with COVID-19 and an infection in February, the first half of the Corsa Rosa has helped find the form he has lacked for arguably three years. The end of Nibali's career is nearing but he wants to go out on a high and with at least a stage victory in the Giro d'Italia.
"I wanted to win the stage but knew it'd be difficult. I was marked closely; it still seems I'm seen as a threat and so difficult to get away," Nibali explained after pouring cold water over his head beyond the finish line in Turin and then riding to the shade of the team bus along the banks of the Po river.
"I'm happy to feel so much affection and support from the road-side. I've felt their support from the stages on my home roads in Sicily. I've seen their banners, felt their warmth and heard their cheers. I'd love to give them a stage victory to pay them back and say thank you."
Nibali finished fourth on the day, 15 seconds down on stage winner Simon Yates (BikeExchange-Jayco) and just behind Jai Hindley (Bora-Hansgrohe) and new race leader Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers).
Everyone else was further back after the four proved they were strongest over the top of the Colle della Maddalena having reeled in Carapaz's solo attack. João Almeida, Mikel Landa and others had slipped away after the heat, the steep Piemonte hills, and the infernal pace set by Bora-Hansgrohe ripped the race apart.
"It was a really hard day, the pace of the Bora-Hansgrohe set was really high and it was so, so hot. So much so that it was difficult to eat and drink, with the heat and the technical nature of the course," Nibali explained.
"I'm lacking a bit of power to be able to attack and get away but I think that's normal at my age. It's not easy to be up at that level and be competitive. When you're older, you have to work even harder to be up there.
"I tried to stay up there as long as I could. I felt good and so rode carefully on the climbs. When Carapaz went away quickly, I didn't even try to go after him, thinking it was too far out from the finish. He's good, as is Hindley, who has come back from two difficult seasons, but nobody is much better than the other in this race.
Nibali's strong ride up helped him pull back a chunk of the time he lost on stage 4 to mount Etna. He was tempted to drop out of the overall classification, much like Yates did after his knee problems, so he could target stages and be left to go away on stages. However Nibali is now eighth overall, 2:58 down on Carapaz. A top five overall is within reach.
With Team leader Miguel Angel López quitting on stage 4, Nibali is now Astana Qazaqstan's only hope for the overall classification, with American Joe Dombrowski – who made it into the brief break of the day – there to help him and perhaps target mountain stage victories.
"The goal is to try to stay in the GC now but I won't cry if I blow up," Nibali confided.
"I lost time on Etna and that hurt but then I was good on the climb of the Blockhaus. Today I was looking for a stage win but I was up there too for the GC."
Nibali will turn 38 in November and will be retired by the time he blows out the candles unless he has a change of heart and puts off retirement.
His Grand Tour victories, his wins Il Lombardia and Milan-San Remo and his aggressive racing style give Nibali a prestigious place in the pantheon of Italian cycling. He struggled while at Trek-Segafredo in recent years, a knee issue in 2021 compounding an occasionally tense relationship with the team.
"Like lots of other riders, I've had good and bad years during my career, we're all human," he said.
"I had problems too with knee pain last season but I kept it quiet. Now I've got some new shoes from Nimbli and that helped resolve the problems.
"Covid was a huge blow to my morale in the spring because it meant I had to work so much harder to get back to the form I need for the Giro. Fortunately I'm back and now I just hope to continue like this all the way to Verona."
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