Mount Etna's place in Vincenzo Nibali's origin story is well worn. As a 13-year-old, his first attempt at scaling the volcano on a bike came in the company of his father, but the assault on the summit came to a halt midway up. "I never forgot that emotion of surrender," Nibali told La Repubblica this week when he revisited the episode. "I had to go further than that the next time, and I succeeded."
Nibali will return to Etna on Monday for the first summit finish of the rescheduled Giro d'Italia, but almost a quarter of a century on, the boy who grew up under the volcano has his sights fixed far beyond its summit.
Although Nibali told La Repubblica that racing up Etna was like being a footballer playing on his home ground, the 35-year-old knows that the success or otherwise of his Giro will be judged on his placing on the final day in Milan on October 25, not on how he fares on home roads in Sicily.
That is not to say, of course, that the Giro's opening stanza in Sicily won't reveal much about the prospects of Nibali, who is in his first season at Trek-Segafredo. The race gets underway with a 15.1km time trial from the cathedral of Monreale into the heart of Palermo, while the new ascent of Etna – from Linguaglossa to Piano Provenzana – might prove more selective than the Giro d'Italia's three visits of the past decade.
"I know more or less all the sides of Etna, but I still had it in mind to come and do a recon of the stage. Unfortunately, because of the lockdown, I never really had the opportunity to check it out specifically," Nibali said in a video conference on Thursday afternoon, when he was asked if he had designs on becoming the first Sicilian to win on the island since Gianni Fazio landed the opening stage in his native Catania in 1949.
"I don't know if there will be a chance for me to win in the first four stages, but the objective for me on this Giro is something else."
Winner in 2013 and 2016, Nibali would surpass Fiorenzo Magni as the oldest Giro champion in history if he were to claim pink in Milan, and in the seasons since his last triumph, he has remained a standard-bearer at the race. A year ago, he outlasted Primož Roglič and was beaten only by Richard Carapaz, but he demurred when asked to outline what would constitute a successful Giro in 2020.
"I don't know," Nibali said. "Let's see. I'm not one for making big predictions. Certainly, the intention is to do a good Giro d'Italia and then when it's over, we'll see."
Thomas and Fuglsang can benefit using time trials
By Nibali's own admission, he has been shy of his best since competition resumed in August following the coronavirus lockdown. His lone stage race in the build-up to the Giro was Tirreno-Adriatico, where he placed a subdued 19th overall, but he was rather more encouraged by his showing at the Road World Championships in Imola last weekend.
"At the Worlds, I was good, and the sensations had changed, so I'm a bit better after that," said Nibali, who will face an early examination of his condition and his credentials in Saturday's opening time trial.
With another 34km time trial in Prosecco country to Valdobbiadene on the penultimate weekend and a final 15km test in Milan, the 2020 Giro offers ample opportunity for rouleurs to make their mark. Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) is the man expected to benefit from the 65km of time trialling on the route, though Nibali also pointed to the threat posed by his former teammate Jakob Fuglsang (Astana).
"I know Jakob very well, we're friends," Nibali said. "In the last two years, he's developed a lot and he's been very strong. Now he's here to go for the GC at this Giro, and I think he'll be one of the main contenders in the race.
"The team of reference will be Ineos, considering what they've shown - Geraint Thomas was going very well at Tirreno, along with Simon Yates [Mitchelton-Scott]. But we have a strong team too."
For all his invention and flair, Nibali's remarkable Grand Tour record – 11 podium finishes, four overall victories – has been built predominantly on his qualities of endurance and consistency. Few riders in cycling history have been blessed with the Sicilian's striking ability to last the course. Assuming circumstances allow the 2020 Giro to complete its course in full, the exceedingly tough final week should be to Nibali's liking, not least stage 18 over the Stelvio. Just like at Etna, Nibali might well have the sensation of playing on home ground.
"The Laghi di Cancano stage is very interesting," Nibali said on Thursday. "We'll have to see what kind of temperatures we have in the high mountains, but that could be very interesting."
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