Vincenzo Nibali cut a relaxed figure as he jumped down the steps of the Bahrain-Merida bus after his prologue effort on the opening day of the Critérium du Dauphiné. The Italian had just posted the slowest time of the riders who are preparing for an assault on the yellow jersey at the Tour de France, but he was unconcerned.
"The Tour de France is still a month away," he breezed.
Indeed, this year there's an extra week between the Dauphiné and the Tour as a result of the football World Cup, and so the traditional stepping stone has lost some of its appeal. Many have jumped ship and will line up instead at the Tour de Suisse next weekend, while the remaining maillot jaune hopefuls all seem cautious about their shape.
Nibali is especially so. It's dangerous to read too much into a 6.6km prologue, and Nibali's time of 7:49 – 24 seconds down on stage winner Michal Kiwatkowski – put him roughly on par with most of his July rivals. However, he'd ordinarily be expected to go better than Romain Bardet (7:48) and Adam Yates (7:46), two lightweight climbers who've traditionally struggled against the clock.
"It was pretty good. Today was a very short effort, a very intense effort. I'm in line with the other GC guys, so that's a good thing," was Nibali's assessment.
After winning Milan-San Remo and then riding the Tour of Flanders and all three Ardennes Classics in the spring, Nibali took a break before heading up Mount Teide in Tenerife for a block of altitude training.
While Bardet, a podium finisher at the past two Tours, has stated his intention to treat this Dauphiné as an objective in its own right, Nibali insists his preparations are still in their infancy.
"There's still a month until the Tour, so it's impossible to be 100 per cent here now. It's too early," Nibali said. "I have no great ambitions here. I'll take it day-by-day, no stress, and will be happy with whatever result I get.
"I've been working hard towards the Tour, trying to improve my shape. I've done a good block of work but I'm lacking that race pace. This week is an important opportunity to pick that up.”
Nibali is no stranger to Mount Teide, having visited the Tenerife volcano ahead of Grand Tours for several years now. One constant has been the presence of his coach Paolo Slongo, who worked with him at Astana before following him to Bahrain-Merida at the start of last season.
"We were up in Teide for two weeks with pretty much the whole Tour de France squad. We did quite a gradual workload, above all aerobic, to try and build endurance," Slongo explained to Cyclingnews.
"We were doing six or seven hours on the bike most days, racking up the kilometres. There were a few specific efforts and sessions focused on quality, but most of all the aim was to help the riders build a base and develop their endurance."
As for how he saw Nibali's progress compared to previous years, he added: "He's not in top shape because our project is for him to be at his best on the start line of the Tour, which is a month away.
"At the moment he's on a curve where he's some way off his best. There's still a lot of room for improvement – in terms of weight, performance, everything."
Nibali is a former Tour de France champion, having won convincingly in 2014 but, after an unsuccessful title defence, he switched his focus to the Giro d'Italia in the past two seasons. Slongo is confident in his rider's ability to win a second maillot jaune and a fifth Grand Tour.
"His last Tour was in 2015 but he's a rider who’s done lots of Tours, he's won one, been on the podium, he's a rider who knows the Tour and how to prepare for the Tour," Slongo said.
"He's been thinking about this since the winter. It's a Tour of two halves, with cobbles, wind, team time trial, and then a more traditional second part with the mountains. He loves the route."
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