Vincenzo Nibali is the figurehead of the Italian team for the men's World Championships road race in Imola on Sunday but his seemingly existential doubts about his form and his lack of results since racing resumed after the COVID-19 lockdown has weakened Italy's hopes of a world title on home roads.
Italian national coach Davide Cassani is now hoping Diego Ulissi, Damiano Caruso or even Deceuninck-QuickStep neo-pro Andrea Bagioli can step-up and at least fight for a medal and defend Italian pride.
However the odds seemed stacked against Italy with the two short, steep climbs and the flat finish on the Imola motor racing circuit seeming to suit the likes of Wout van Aert (Belgium), Julian Alaphilippe (France), Michał Kwiatkowski (Poland), Marc Hirschi (Switzerland) or Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar (Slovenia).
"We're not one of the favourites but we're the squadra and we're used to huge challenges," Cassani said during Italy's final video press conference as they stayed protected in their hotel near Imola.
"Nibali has admitted he's not at his best but I'd always want him part of my team. Our unity has always been a factor over the years and we'll do our best again this year. It'll be a hard task against the likes of Van Aert, Hirschi and the rest but we'll try and come up with something.
On Thursday evening, Nibali spoke for a final time before Sunday's road race via a video link from his hotel room.
He will also lead Trek-Segafredo at the Giro d'Italia from next Saturday but admitted the COVID-19 pandemic and the rescheduled calendar had damaged his preferred gradual build-up to peak form.
"I'll quietly and modestly see what I can do on Sunday but I don't think I'll be the only protected leader of the Azzurri, we've got lots of arrows," Nibali said.
Nibali opted for an all-Italian race programme in August but struggled in the one-day races, his best result being fifth in the Gran Trittico Lombardo in Varese, and then sixth at Il lombardia after working for teammate Giulio Ciccone. Nibali trained at altitude in early September but then struggled to adapt to racing at Tirreno-Adriatico, finishing a frustrating 19th overall.
Ciccone, meanwhile, tested positive for COVID-19 during an altitude training camp and came down with symptoms. It's unclear if he will return for the Giro d'Italia.
"This has been a very different year. We started racing again with there immediately some important races but it's never been easy for me to quickly find peak form. I've always needed more racing and more kilometres in my legs, and so I've suffered quite a lot," Nibali explained.
"I came down from altitude and rode Tirreno and that was my second restart. I'm not in great form but I've kept working in the hope that things can get better.
"For both the Worlds and the Giro I hope that I get a response from body and bounce back mentally but it's difficult. If you look at Tour de France, lots of leaders suffered too, so that confirms it's not an easy season to get right and achieve your goals."
Ulissi as leader?
Nibali has trained on the Imola circuit and quickly realised the two steep climbs and narrow country roads will make for a hard, selective race. He was not optimistic about being in the finale when the race is decided.
"This Worlds is different, the lap is longer at 28km and there's no easy section. The huge amount of climbing soon adds up and the two climbs are step and hurt. The expected bad weather could make it a very hard Worlds," he predicted.
"I think the riders with real distance and form will emerge in the final two or three laps. The Tour de France riders like Kwiatkowski and van Aert and other riders who are clearly on form will emerge. It's risky waiting and hoping to do something on the last lap because Van Aert is strong and is a big favourite in any kind of sprint finish."
Diego Ulissi seems Italy's best chance of success. He is on form, can handle the steep climbs and has a decent sprint finish. He won the recent Tour de Luxembourg and was back-to-back world champion as a Junior in 2006 and 2007 and seems ready for an aggressive race.
"It's a very demanding course and so I think it'll be an open race, with lots of different possibilities. The two climbs are tough and we'll feel them for sure in the finale," Ulissi predicted.
"Chasing a breakaway is really hard on all the rolling roads, so whoever attacks in the final two or three laps and goes for it, will have an advantage."
Ulissi finished second at the Tour Down Under in January and has racked-up a lot of top ten placings since racing returned. He has extended his contract with UAE Team Emirates until 2022 and so arguably has the mental and physical confidence that Nibali so clearly lacks.
Winning races is always nice especially after a lot of placings, morale is important," Ulisis said.
"I don't feel under pressure and feel confident after the success in Luxembourg. I'm focused on having a great Worlds."
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