An audience with Vincenzo Nibali. This physically-distant edition of the Giro d’Italia means that the ritual of rest day press conferences has migrated to cyberspace. Rather than congregate at the Trek-Segafredo hotel on Monday, reporters were instead asked to submit their questions for Nibali by 10am local time ahead of the Italian’s appearance in a live Facebook video later in the afternoon.
Nibali appeared promptly at the allotted hour and began to read through the selected questions, while in the comment box below his on-screen presence, some of his tifosi chipped in with their own observations.
"Attack without thinking," advised one. "KEEP BITING SQUALO," trilled another, adding emojis for further emphasis. Undeterred, Nibali moved briskly from answer to answer. "Stage six… I mean, question six," he smiled at one point.
A week into this Giro, Nibali lies fifth overall, 57 seconds off the maglia rosa of João Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep). His best moment undoubtedly came in his assured display atop Mount Etna on stage 3, but he suffered a mild setback at Roccaraso on Sunday, conceding 14 seconds to Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb) and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) in the steep final 400 metres.
While Nibali acknowledged that the general classification rarely lies – "At this moment, my position is about right, because we’ve done only one important mountain finish so far" – he suggested that his travails at Roccaraso could be explained in part by his decision to dispense with his rain jacket too hastily in the finale.
"I took my jacket off with 9 kilometres to go and that was an error because there were 3 kilometres of descending a little further on," Nibali said. "The others kept their jackets on until the last 3k. That may or may not have had an effect, although it’s also true that it’s a climb that didn’t suit me. Everything happened in a kilometre of a sprint at the end. I lost a bit there, but those are the kinds of finishes least suited to my characteristics."
It remains to be seen, of course, if the terrain most tailored to Nibali’s requirements – the long and high mountain passes of the race’s third week – will even feature in this year’s Giro. Heavy snow fell on Piancavallo and the Stelvio over the weekend, and if race director Mauro Vegni is forced to reroute the Giro away from the highest mountains, 'Shark Week' might end up being defanged.
"It’s a problem that doesn’t affect only me," Nibali said. "I think the organisation has already prepared a plan B and maybe even a plan C for the stages that might have problems with snow or drastic weather. That’s a bit of a concern for me, but as the days go by, we’ll be updated. We’ll see as the Giro progresses."
The doubts over the feasibility of some key stages in the third week of the Giro will surely make the GC contenders more inclined to test the waters in the obviously less-taxing second week. The next major appointments are the Valdobbiandene time trial and Piancavallo summit finish at the weekend, but there are potential springboards all along the Adriatic coast in the coming days, including the muri in the finale at Tortoreto Lido on Tuesday and stage 12 in Cesenatico on Thursday, which follows the route of the Nove Colli Gran Fondo.
"It’s not straightforward. I’m maybe more suited to the longer climbs, but if those climbs were taken out, then it could make everyone – and not just me – ride more aggressively in the stages coming up," said the two-time Giro champion. "Right now, we can’t decide that, but we’ll see as we go along.
"We’ve done some nervous stages up to now, but no very long climbs apart from Etna. The Giro is quite tactical at the moment, and there’s very little space. But you have to evaluate things day by day, and maybe the tactical situation might unlock. There’s no team that’s really capable of controlling the whole race."
On Sunday evening and Monday morning, all riders and staff within the Giro ‘bubble’ underwent mandatory PCR tests, with the results due to be confirmed before the start of stage 10 in Lanciano. Simon Yates’ positive test for COVID-19 on Friday evening has increased the anxiety of the gruppo regarding this next round of coronavirus controls, but Nibali said that he was not unduly concerned.
"In one way, yes, but in another, no, because it seems less virulent than it was at the time of its explosion at the start of the year," Nibali said. "At this moment, we’re all on our guard. We’re trying to keep our distance, unfortunately, from the public. It’s all more complicated with masks and gel, but we’re trying to stay in the bubble as much as possible."
Fuglsang and other contenders
While Almeida holds the maglia rosa and Kelderman is the best-placed of the more experienced GC contenders – "He’s the one who’s gone the strongest so far," Nibali said – much emphasis has been placed in recent days over Nibali’s rivalry with his former Astana teammate Fuglsang.
In his column for Danish tabloid BT last week, Fuglsang noted that his one-time leader "hardly greets me and chases me down quite a lot." The Dane also complained that Trek-Segafredo had looked to pile on the pressure when he punctured on the descent of the Monte Sant’Angelo on Saturday.
Astana Directeur Sportif Giuseppe Martinelli, meanwhile, warned that if Fuglsang and Nibali marked each other too tightly, they risked letting the Giro slip away from them. Nibali, who found himself distracted by a similar battle with Primož Roglič last year as Richard Carapaz moved into pink, was in broad agreement with his former directeur sportif.
"It’s not right to focus just on Fuglsang, you need to think about Kelderman and [Steven] Kruijswijk too," said Nibali, though in a Giro beset by so many doubts, the tactical picture remains decidedly nebulous. "Coming at this moment of the season, it’s a very strange Giro."
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