Three years after he battled through a near blizzard on the Tre Cime di Lavaredo to clinch his hold on the Giro d’Italia’s overall lead, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) is back in his home race again - and, as in 2013, the Sicilian starts the 2016 Giro d’Italia as top favourite.
In 2013, Nibali’s rivals included Bradley Wiggins, as the then Sky rider began his ill-fated bid to take become Britain’s first ever winner of Giro d’Italia, Rigoberto Urán - back again in the Giro this year and runner-up in 2013 - and Cadel Evans, third overall in 2013 and now retired. Fourth on GC was Michele Scarponi, now a team-mate and sitting on Nibali’s left as he spoke at the Giro’s pre-race press conference on Thursday evening and fifth Carlos Alberto Betancur, also back in the Giro but now racing in Movistar as a domestique de luxe for Spanish contender Alejandro Valverde.
In the meantime, Nibali, too, has moved on, and how. He won the Tour de France in 2014, has twice been national champion and took a memorable lone win in the Tour of Lombardy last October. He returns to the Giro d’Italia three years older but also as a firmly established member of cycling’s current quarter of leading Grand Tour racers, together with Chris Froome (Sky); Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar).
As the only member of that 'big four' at this Giro, Nibali’s appearance in the Apeldoorn press centre was keenly awaited, for all it was the last of the Thursday press conferences of a day-long series. Indeed, even as Sky’s team leaders were delivering their last answers to the television crews, a small knot of the Giro's photographers were already congregating at the back of the room, taking pictures of the 2016 Giro’s top favourite as he sat quietly in a low-slung armchair next to team-mate Scarponi waiting for his turn to speak.
When he finally moved onto the press conference top table, the Italian media instantly made sure that Nibali’s relatively poor showing in the traditional warm-up race, the Giro di Trentino, where he finished 21st overall before making an equally low-key appearance in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, was the first subject up for dissection. ‘Was Vincenzo worried?’ one Italian reporter asked.
Nibali gave a somewhat non-committal answer, arguing that “I wasn’t overly happy with how it went but I am pretty calm and confident and ready for the Giro. Immediately before Trentino I had previously trained very hard, so it was almost like I was recovering from that spell of training as I headed towards Liege-Bastogne-Liege. I ‘m building towards this Giro and the biggest stages, the key stages, will show us what is what.”
Nibali was equally reserved when asked about Mikel Landa (Sky) and other new rivals, to the point that he initially could not think of any potential surprise contenders in the race, although he later added Tom Dumoulin (Girant-Alpecin) and Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge) as possible challengers for the overall. But it was his 26-year-old former Astana team-mate who seems, a priori, to be uppermost on Nibali’s mind.
“Landa is young and going for GC and the latest results indicate he’ll be one of the biggest rivals. Then for sure there will be a surprise or two among the younger names, too, but I can’t think of any right now. Of course,” he concluded, “if we were talking strong young Italians, I’d mention Fabio Aru, but he’s going for the Tour.”
Nibali admitted that as far as Landa was concerned, the Chianti time trial stage could become his ally in terms of gaining time on the Spaniard. "Up until now the time trials have always been his weak point. The time trial should, therefore, be a point in my favour," he said.
“It is going to be first key battle, too: it’s got so many curves, and has a very technical, lumpy course. I don’t want to forget the [stage eight] Arezzo roads with the strade bianche. But the time trial is where we will really get a feel for who’ll be in top form for winning the Giro.”
However, Nibali then broadened the circle of adversaries once again to say that “lots of other riders are also important, like [Alejandro] Valverde (Movistar), [Tom] Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin)…Dumoulin did well in Romandie. Vediamo.”
Not to be outmanoeuvred, yet another question came in from the Italian media regarding Landa. On this occasion it was to ask Nibali both if he saw the Spaniard, who went from strength to strength in the 2015 Giro, as his most dangerous rival in the final week and how he ranked Landa as a descender - another area where Nibali has stolen a march on his adversaries in the past.
Nibali batted away that particular double-handed question by saying “The last week is the hardest for everybody and I don’t think it’s necessarily in Landa's favour. He was certainly the man to beat in the last week of the Giro last year." As for Landa’s descending skills, Nibali praised them as ‘above-average.’
Nibali paid very close attention to one of his current team-mates, Jakob Fuglsang, when the Dane was asked how he rated his personal options in this year’s Giro d’Italia. Third in the Giro del Trentino, Fuglsang pointed to the 2014 Tour France, when he enjoyed protected rider status as far as the Pyrenees, where he lost a lot of time, as an example of how he will approach the Giro.
“I have to try to be up there on GC, I will be another card to play,” the Dane said. "It will be a bit like the 2014 Tour de France where it all went well initially, but in any case it worked out fine because Vincenzo won overall.”
Another key Astana team-mate, Michele Scarponi, also made it clear which contender he feels will show most strongly in the 2016 Giro d’Italia. “In this precise moment, and knowing his current condition, I’d much rather be supporting Nibali than racing against him,” the 2011 Giro d’Italia winner said categorically. But in a curiously low-key press conference, Nibali gave little indication - yet - of exactly how strong he feels ahead of the battle for what would be his fourth Grand Tour win in seven years. Rather, as the cliche puts it, it could well be his legs that do the talking.
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The Independent, The Guardian, ProCycling, The Express and Reuters.