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No Giro d'Italia for old men: Nibali says young riders are sharper

Giro dItalia 2020 103th Edition 6th stage Castrovillari Matera 188km 08102020 Vincenzo Nibali ITA Trek Segafredo photo Ilario BiondiBettiniPhoto2020
Vincenzo Nibali of Trek-Segafredo enters final week of Giro in seventh overall (Image credit: Bettini Image)

Vincenzo Nibali and his Trek-Segafredo team opted for a quiet Giro d’Italia rest day, preferring to reflect on their difficult position in the fight for the maglia rosa and try to work out how they can turn things around in the mountains of the final week.

Nibali fought back to win the 2016 Giro, reeling in almost five minutes on Steven Kruijswijk and Esteban Chaves to triumph in Turin, responding to his critics with a show of Sicilian pride. However he is now almost 36 and the 2020 Giro d’Italia does not seem like a race for old men.

Indeed, there are clear signs that a major generational change is underway in the Corsa Rosa just as was at the Tour de France, the Classics and elsewhere. In the top 20 overall, only Domenico Pozzovivo is older than Nibali and that is because the Tour de France has helped him find a youthful elixir of form. A 35-year-old Jakob Fuglsang is also struggling despite being a major pre-race favourite.

A far younger generation are performing much better. Tadej Pogačar, 22 years of age, snatched victory at the Tour de France, and the next generation also appear unwilling to respect any previous hierarchy in Italy. Nibali and Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) are the only riders in the current top 10 to have finished on a Grand Tour podium.

At 22 years old, João Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep) may yet crack spectacularly in the high mountains this week but is putting up a gutsy fight. Kelderman spans the generations at 29, but is finally coming of age and looks rock solid. He has the support of a strong Team Sunweb squad, with Jai Hindley third overall. The 24-year-old Australian has a superb stage race pedigree and is finally confirming the results he showed at under-23 level.

Piancavallo stage winner Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers) is only 25, but is in his fourth season at the WorldTour level. He is only 32 seconds ahead of Nibali, but looked far stronger on the climb and is coming back from losing two minutes to Nibali on Mount Etna. 

“This is a young rider’s Giro… It’s clear a new generation is breaking through. The younger riders are stronger and don’t seem to worry about numbers - they simply push hard on the pedals,” said seasoned directeur sportif Giuseppe Martinelli. 

He is trying to get the best out of Fuglsang at Astana and has guided Nibali to victory in the past, but backed Kelderman to win in Milan next Sunday.  

“Kelderman is the huge favourite for the Giro now even if we’ve got a terrible final week and the Stelvio to climb. Fuglsang and Nibali just aren’t at the level of the other young guys” Martinelli said.

Tough road to Milan

Racing against guys who are 12 to 14 years younger, Nibali’s Grand Tour track record and four victories mean he should never been written off. Instead of taking back time on his younger rivals in this year’s race, he lost time in the Valdobbiadene time trial on Saturday and then again during Sunday’s summit finish at Piancavallo.

Nibali and his coach Paolo Slongo were able to justify the time trial result and even his time losses to Almeida and to Kelderman. The sight of Nibali being dropped so early on the 14km climb to Piancavallo was impossible to hide and very revealing. Nibali conceded 1:34 to Kelderman and 59 seconds to Almeida.

He is now a distant seventh overall, 3:29 off the pink jersey and 3:14 behind Kelderman.

“That’s the reality and it has to be accepted. I can only try to fight back in the stages to come,” Nibali said on Sunday, explaining his performance, and that of his younger rivals.

“I’ve suffered, like never before,” he revealed. “We’re racing hard even if someone wanted to convince people that the level is not high here. That’s rubbish. Sunweb was as good as the very best Team Sky. Their train on the climb was impressive. I paid for it, but compared to the same climb three years ago, my data is the same and my times are even better.

“I’m racing against guys who are 12 to 14 years younger. Let’s say they’re sharper than I am,” Nibali stated.

Nibali’s morale has not dipped towards defeatism as in the past. But he knows he has a mountain to climb as steep as the Stelvio, with his age now more of a handicap than his years of experience an advantage.

He is also lacking teammates to help him in the long, high mountain stage this week. Pieter Weening crashed out early in the Giro, Giulio Ciccone made a rapid return from COVID-19 but was then struck by bronchitis on Friday, while Gianluca Brambilla was forced out on Sunday due to a knee injury.

Nibali can only count on support from Julien Bernard, Nicola Conci, Jacopo Mosca and his younger brother Antonio. None are climbers of note and Vincenzo knows he will be isolated and so tactically limited on the road to Milan.

“Vincenzo’s morale is not bad because when you give your all, you can’t have regrets,” Slongo said. “We’ll try to invent something. The leaders are at a high level and so let’s see if they can hold it or if they will fade.

“We’re at our usual level for a Grand Tour, the others are just better. But this is a year for surprises and perhaps they’re not over just yet.”