Following a season that was plagued with illness and injury and that limited him to just 28 race days in 2017, Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek-Segafredo) is hoping to start his "comeback" this week at the Vuelta a San Juan in Argentina.
The 28-year-old Italian sprinter suffered through a nightmare season last year, delaying his start until the Tour of Croatia in April because of lingering knee pain from tendinitis. He went from Croatia to the Giro d'Italia in May, taking third in the stage 3 sprint but then abandoning before stage 11 because of pollen allergies and a lack of form because of his late start.
Nizzolo returned for the Hammer Series in June, taking a stage win and finishing 10th overall, but he was unable to defend his Italian championship later that month, abandoning the race in Asti. He failed to finish San Sebastian in July, and then after another break returned to racing at the end of the season at the Tour of Guangxi in late October.
It's the kind of season that could shake any rider's confidence, and Nizzolo acknowledged the difficulty of remaining confident of his ability in the face of so much adversity.
"It's not easy, honestly," Nizzolo told Cyclingnews Sunday ahead of the stage 1 start of the Vuelta a San Juan.
"You have to look inside and find the balance, which is not easy to find. But still you have to look back at what you did, what you were able to do, and starting from that, you keep working and keep working.
"I cannot say if I can come back because actually, I don't know yet," he said. "But I'm confident of coming back. I don't know at which level, but I know for sure that sooner or later I will be better. That's the key."
Nizzolo is in Argentina this week to get the ball rolling on his "comeback" bid. The seven-stage UCI 2.1 ranked race features multiple sprint opportunities that provide the perfect launching point for Nizzolo's 2018 campaign.
"I think this was the best race to restart, the best situation," he said. "There is good weather and good roads and a lot less stress than maybe you find in Tour Down Under. For me, it was really important to start to race as soon as possible, so in January is the best option.
"I can find also this feeling that maybe I will miss a bit in the beginning because I have to get used to again in the final. But as I said, this is the best way to restart."
Taking on Gaviria
Nizzolo has Eugenio Alafaci and Ryan Mullen to help guide him in the sprints, although he said Trek-Segafredo will likely play off the other top sprint teams like Fernando Gaviria's Quick-Step Floors.
"I think we are not the team that has to lead the bunch in the sprint, so we can be a bit smart and use the work of the other teams that may be a bit more organised than us. But, you know, we have nothing to lose, so we'll go there and we'll see."
The trick in San Juan, where teams are limited to six riders, is to be smart and use the team's power efficiently, but the smaller teams also have benefits.
"On one side it's easier because there are fewer people in the finale but on the other side, you have to manage your team much better than in the other races because of course, you have less power to use. It's really important to hit out at the right moment," Nizzolo explained.
"It's not that when you are eight or nine in your team you waste power, but it's important to be a bit more organised when you are two riders less."
Nizzolo will face no shortage of competition in the Vuelta a San Juan sprints.
Gaviria, of course, is the favourite of all the fast men, but there's also Matteo Pelucchi from Bora-Hansgrohe, Niccolo Bonifazio from Bahrain-Merida and a host of hungry young South American sprinters.
Gaviria himself shot to prominence in Argentina in 2015 when he beat Mark Cavendish in two sprints at the Tour de San Luis. The competition should provide a good sounding board for Nizzolo's return to form.
"I want to see where I am," he said.
Nizzolo's big tests will come later this spring in the Classics, where he hopes to ride Milan-San Remo, the E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders and possibly Paris-Roubaix.
"There is a question mark on Roubaix, but that depends also on the Giro d'Italia because maybe the Giro is too close to go really deep into Roubaix," he said.
"I'm planning to do the Giro right now, but this can change after the Classics. Now I want to look only until the Classics finish, and from there we'll decide what's going on."
Dreaming of Milan-San Remo
Among the Classics, Milan-San Remo stands out for Nizzolo. It's the only Monument for the sprinters, and it starts in the town where he was born.
"For me, San Remo is a dream race," he said. "It's 'the' dream race. Since I was young I always looked at the idea of riding Milan-San Remo as a dream. It's special because it starts in Milan, where I was born, and it finishes in San Remo by the seaside. It's already something special only for that. It's the longest and the only monument for sprinters."
Nizzolo has started San Remo three times, abandoning his first effort in 2013, then finishing 84th in 2015 and 42nd in 2016.
"There are many reasons why I love it, but for different reasons, I always ride with small problems or I didn't do it because of injuries," he said. "I really hope one day to arrive there with my best shape to see what happens, to see what I can do."
Milan-San Remo is always a crap shoot, with the Cipressa and the Poggio close to the finish meaning there are multiple ways of winning the race. It is an unpredictable race that requires good luck as much as good form.
"This is also why it's so beautiful, because at the start of Flanders maybe 20 guys maximum can win the race," Nizzolo said. "In San Remo, it's around maybe 40, so double. It's also interesting for that."
No matter what happens on the roads this year, Nizzolo says his main goal is simply to return to the form he had in 2016 when he won seven races, including the Italian road race championship, a feat he'd obviously like to repeat.
"Why not. For me it would be a good plan, it'd be a good result," he said.
"Of course the jersey gave me a lot of motivation in the second part of the 2016 season. I know this year they're going to do the championship in the same place where I won, but I don't know if it will be the same roads."
Nizzolo's plans for 2018 are falling into place and his goals are starting to take shape, but right now he's focused on getting things rolling in San Juan.
"I did San Luis in 2014," he recalled. "I won a stage there and we won also two other stages from the team, so I have good memories from Argentina."
He's hoping to add more good memories this week.
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