The glass, Vincenzo Nibali said, was neither half full nor half empty when the Giro d’Italia drew to a close in the half-light of a grey afternoon in Milan last October. “It was exactly at halfway,” he said with a smile. “You just have to accept what comes.”
Nibali’s final placing of seventh broke a sequence of six consecutive podium finishes at the corsa rosa, while the success of men a decade or more his junior – Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers), Jai Hindley (Team DSM) and João Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep) in Italy, Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) at the Tour de France – seemed to suggest a changing of the guard in the Grand Tours.
And yet, there were some glimmers of consolation to be found amid that disappointment, or at least some mitigation for it. Trek-Segafredo coach Paolo Slongo maintained that his rider’s power data was still in line with his peak years, while Nibali admitted that his preparation had been affected by the limited diet of racing on offer after the coronavirus pandemic had interrupted the season. The short and sharp revised campaign that followed didn’t lend itself to men in their fourth decade.
“For young people, it’s more simple. When I was 10 years younger, I could gain condition very quickly. But it’s a bit more complicated when you’re older. We’re more used to a routine,” Nibali told reporters in a video conference on Tuesday where he discussed his plans for the 2021 season.
“During the months of the pandemic, I still managed to train, but I was training in the dark a bit. When we started back up, I thought I was going well but instead I found that wasn’t the case. I found myself following from the first race and I spent most of the rest of the season following, too.
“The motivation wasn’t super, especially during the last week, but I still finished the Giro with a top 10. That wasn’t my objective, but it wasn’t a bad result either, considering the kind of season we’d had.”
After spending last Autumn on the back foot, chasing both his best form and the strongest riders – Trek-Segafredo’s doomed pursuit at Il Lombardia was his season in microcosm – Nibali’s overriding objective for 2021 appears to be to avoid a repeat of that scenario.
The Giro d’Italia is again a target, and Nibali will then use the Tour de France to move towards the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics, but he has vowed to approach the early part of the campaign in a different way. Rather than work methodically with only the Giro in mind, he will look to make an early impression at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, the Volta ao Algarve and Tirreno-Adriatico. The aim, it seems, is not just to build form, but to gain morale.
“I’ll be approaching things day by day, race by race. It’s a decision that I made because I didn’t really want to focus on just one objective,” said Nibali.
That marks a notable change for Nibali, who has made a speciality of peaking just in time for the grandest of occasions in the latter part of his career, as illustrated by his five most recent wins, which comprise two Monuments and a stage in each of the three Grand Tours.
“The motivation is always to raise your arms in victory. During my career, I’ve had some great successes but there have also been some seasons that were more subdued. Last year was maybe one of those, but that can be a point of departure for this year.”
Nibali is set to tackle the Giro and Tour in the same season for the fourth time in his career, albeit again without any aspiration of becoming the eighth man in history to complete the double. After lining up alongside Bauke Mollema and Giulio Ciccone in a strong Trek-Segafredo squad for the Giro, Nibali will instead use the Tour to prepare for the Tokyo Olympic Games – assuming, of course, that the road race ultimately goes ahead.
“It’s an important objective, it comes only every four years – well five years, in this case – so I’ll try to get there in condition. Winning the Olympics would be a nice dream, but it’s not simple,” said Nibali, who is still unsure if the quarantine restrictions for the Olympics will allow him to go all the way to Paris, given that just five days separate the Champs-Élysées from the men’s road race. “In the past, I’ve done this, but this time I don’t know if I’ll do the whole Tour because of the COVID-19 protocols.”
Nibali admitted that this would “obviously” be his last tilt at the Olympics – he crashed out with the gold medal almost in his grasp in Rio in 2016 – though he wouldn’t be drawn on about bringing the curtain down on his career when speaking with the Italian press earlier on Tuesday. “I haven’t given myself a definitive expiry date,” he said. “It also depends on how this season goes.”
In a year where the coronavirus pandemic looks set to create further uncertainty over the calendar, there is no time like the present.
“Let’s hope it’s not like 2020,” Nibali said. “But it was very useful for understanding how to plan things in a different way if we face the same situation.”
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