If the Giro d'Italia were a popularity contest, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) would have had the general classification long since wrapped up. Indeed, one mobile phone company has asked its users to vote each day for their Ciclista del cuore on the race, and their response has been unanimous.
And so in Molveno on Wednesday morning, a day after one of the greatest setbacks of his career, Nibali was once again called the podium before the start in order to receive his umpteenth complimentary smartphone of this Giro. He even managed to summon a smile during the incongruous ceremony as he acknowledged the applause, which has followed his every move throughout the past two and half weeks.
After slipping to fourth overall at Andalo on Tuesday, some 4:43 behind maglia rosa Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo), Nibali opted not to stop for journalists at the finish line. He spoke to Gazzetta dello Sport at his hotel later that evening, though only after pleading to be left alone. "Why do you want to wound my pride even more? I'm already in pieces," he said.
Nibali's travails have generated plenty of column inches over the past week, with everything from the ruminations over his imminent move to a new Bahrain-backed team to his decision to switch to 175-millimetre cranks cited as explanations for his subdued Giro.
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No matter, when Nibali spoke to reporters outside the Astana bus in Molveno, he returned to a theme he had already touched upon in an interview with Procycling earlier this year, when he complained that he had been "massacred" by his home media.
Nibali finished Wednesday's flat, fast stage safely in the main body of the peloton and he remains in fourth place overall, 1:20 off third-placed Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and just 7 seconds ahead of Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha).
Asked if Nibali was experiencing the worst moment of his career on this Giro, meanwhile, Martinelli nodded. "Probably yes," he said. "But in moments of difficulty, the real man emerges, and I want him to be that man right now."
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