Vincenzo Nibali laid down the first pedal strokes of his 2017 season on Monday at the Vuelta a San Juan, with every rotation taking him that bit closer to the Giro d'Italia, and he is surrounded in Argentina by the core of riders who will accompany him in May as he bids to land a third overall victory at his home Grand Tour.
It's Nibali's first racing appearance in the colours of the new Bahrain-Merida team, a set-up truly crafted in his image. The plan for the team was hatched when he met and rode with Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa of Bahrain, and it is replete with fellow Italians and former teammates, not to mention his coach, Paolo Slongo, and press officer from Astana.
It's rare that one rider exerts such influence within a team, and Nibali has had plenty of say in terms of the transfer policy, with former teammates Valerio Agnoli and Franco Pellizotti brought in at his behest. Joining those two Italians by Nibali's side in San Juan – and all the way to the Giro – are Kanstantin SIutsou, Manuele Boaro, and Ramunas Navardauskas.
"The approach the team has taken is to get a group working together for a long time ahead of the Giro. They have been getting to know each other and are doing all their racing and training together," Slongo told Cyclingnews at the start of the first stage by San Juan's Plaza de Mayo.
"It's a group full of very skilled guys for the big stage races. We have powerful riders like Navardauskas and Boaro, and riders like Siutsou or Pelizzotti who are strong on the climbs. We'll have a team that is very strong, both on the flat and on the climbs."
There are only six riders per team at the Argentinian season-opener, which leaves three spots for the final Giro line-up. Javi Moreno is a shoe-in as one of Nibali's most important men in the mountains, while fellow former Movistar man Giovanni Visconti, who also has Grand Tour experience supporting big leaders in Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde, should be included. The final spot is much more open, with three or four riders in the frame.
"The ninth rider we will choose later but the group has taken shape and they know they are working together up to the Giro, and that's the important thing," added Slongo.
"I have worked with Nibali since 2008, first in Liquigas then in Astana, and the idea was to reproduce a very similar approach. Getting a group together and trying to make sure everyone arrives at the Giro in top form."
'The pressure is not so much on Nibali at the Giro'
The Italian feels that Nibali is in similar shape, mentally as well as physically, as he was 12 months ago – "even better maybe".
Nibali, 32, is the star rider here but is resisting the pressure to win the race, instead concentrating on getting back into the flow of racing and banking the kilometres under the Argentine sun.
"Here at the Vuelta a San Juan we're starting to pick up the pace, but without any pressure. There's a time trial and a climb, and we'll do our best for the GC, but whether he's really strong, or slightly sluggish, there's no problem," said Slongo.
The pressure will ratchet up as the Giro draws closer, though Slongo argued that there won't be quite as much pressure on his shoulders as in 2016, when he was the out-and-out favourite but struggled for so long before finally turning things around with a dramatic last-gasp victory.
"The pressure is not just on Nibali. At the Giro this year there are lots of riders who can win the race," he said. "I was reading that [Nairo] Quintana is coming, [Fabio] Aru, [Thibaut] Pinot, and others. There are a lot of riders who can win the Giro, so the pressure is not so much on Nibali."
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