It wasn't supposed to end like this, but, in the circumstances, it could hardly have ended much differently. For six appearances in succession, Vincenzo Nibali's Giro d'Italia finished with a trip to the podium. This year, like last, his race finished 50 metres away from the dais on Piazza del Duomo, as he settled into the back seat of a Trek-Segafredo van.
The final starters – maglia rosa Egan Bernal, Damiano Caruso and Simon Yates – were only beginning their efforts as Nibali completed his. The Sicilian broke his wrist in training three weeks before the Giro, and although he recovered quickly enough to start, that would be his only victory this May.
It wasn't for the want of trying. Nibali battled grimly to limit his losses in the opening two weeks. After letting go of all GC aspirations on the Zoncolan, he suffered a rib injury in a crash the next day, placing his race at risk.
No matter, he repurposed himself as a stage hunter, going on the offensive on the shortened stage to Cortina d'Ampezzo. Nothing to be done. He crashed on stage 17 but fought on to finish in Milan.
On Sunday, Nibali completed the Giro in 18th place overall, more than an hour down on Bernal. It was his lowest finish in the corsa rosa since he placed 19th on his debut back in 2007 when he was part of the Liquigas guard that helped Danilo Di Luca to victory. But even before he travelled to Turin for the Grande Partenza, Nibali suspected his Giro might play out like this.
"I decided to do the race anyway," Nibali said. "I was in difficulty from the start and things didn't go well afterwards. It was effort upon effort. What I said in the last few days, I don't need to repeat. It certainly wasn't an easy Giro for me.
"But I don't have many seasons left, so I think it was right to honour the Giro. The Giro has given me a lot. I won it twice and the joy was truly immense. The public was stratospheric then, and they showed it again this year, even though I wasn't going well. There's nothing more to say about that."
Rather than ruminate on his own race, Nibali preferred to laud that of his former teammate Damiano Caruso, who claimed a surprising second place overall, capped by a stirring stage victory at Alpe Motta on Sunday. The two Sicilians had followed a similar pathway to the professional ranks, moving north to Tuscany to ride for Mastromarco, and later racing together at Liquigas and Bahrain.
"I'm happy with this Giro for how Damiano has raced it. He gave me a lot as a rider and we're like brothers," Nibali said. "I don't know how his time trial is going now, but I'm very happy for him. He's a symbol of the Sicily that gets things done, that doesn't give up."
After placing seventh overall at last year's delayed Giro, Nibali suggested he would structure his season differently in 2021. Even though his ambitions in three-week races were not officially downgraded, it was clear that the Tokyo Olympics would be the centrepiece of his campaign.
The road race on July 24 remains an objective, and it is expected that Nibali will start the Tour de France as preparation, though his precise status in Davide Cassani's Italian squad is not yet certain. Nibali may be guaranteed a seat on the plane to Japan, but riders like Caruso and Alberto Bettiol might be nurturing leadership ambitions after their displays on this Giro. Nibali, for his part, has unfinished business with the Olympic Games after a late crash cost him a likely gold medal in Rio five years ago.
"Sometimes too much pressure can swamp you, and it's not easy. Always riding as a leader isn't easy," said Nibali. "It's clearly the big objective of the season, but sometimes wanting something at every cost doesn't do you good either. You have to come in with a certain degree of lightness.
"There's still a long road to the Olympics, and the aim is to get there in the best condition in the right moment. But at the moment, there are a lot of great Italian riders who can ride a great Olympics, like Damiano Caruso and Gianni Moscon."
As Nibali was speaking to reporters, a group of tifosi had gathered around the barriers near the Trek-Segafredo van. One especially booming voice called for him repeatedly, to the mild annoyance of the television crews looking for clear audio: "Grande Vincenzo! Dai Squalo, come out and give us a look at you!"
Once the reporters had filtered away, Nibali quietly obliged. He stepped out of the van and raised shyly two arms. He was waving, not celebrating, but his reception was the same as its ever been on the last day of the Giro. The tifosi cheered.
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