Vincenzo Nibali ready to broaden his repertoire at the Tour of Flanders
Italian makes Ronde debut buoyed by Milan-San Remo victory
The name escaped him, so Vincenzo Nibali turned to consult with Bahrain-Merida directeur sportif Rik Verbrugghe. "What's the one that starts out like this?" Nibali asked sotto voce, tilting his hand to indicate the gradient. "Ah, the Kwaremont," Verbrugghe said, and Nibali turned back to his audience and smiled bashfully: "I'm sorry, I don't remember the names."
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Nibali may not yet be wholly familiar with the sacred language of Flemish cycling, but few riders in world cycling have proved as fluent on the same variety of terrains as the Sicilian, whose palmarès includes all three Grand Tours and two of the five Monuments. He may be making his Tour of Flanders debut on Sunday, but based on past pedigree and current form, nobody in the race would dare to dismiss his chances.
After arriving in Kortrijk on Thursday evening, Nibali reconnoitred the final 70 kilometres of the Ronde course on Friday morning, a ride that included two ascents of the finale over the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg.
The Kwatemont's lengthy sea of jagged cobbles may have whetted Nibali's appetite, but he is mindful that the Ronde is a race often decided by sheer force rather than by invention of the kind that carried him to Milan-San Remo victory two weeks ago after a daring raid over the Poggio.
"Riding the parcours this morning gave me plenty of ideas, but I think you need to get to know a race like this before you can get carried away by the idea of inventing something," Nibali told a press conference in Kortrijk on Friday afternoon. "My condition is good, so maybe I'll be able to find space to invent something. But I think that in Flanders, you can invent very little."
Despite the flags on the roadside, partisanship is in surprisingly short supply in Flanders, and foreign riders who venture north to sample the Ronde are respected. Nibali is no exception. "Welcome Vincenzo Nibali, and good luck in your first Ronde," read the headline in Het Laatste Nieuws, and on Friday afternoon, local reporters were eager to hear the Italian's opinion of the difficulties of their race.
"It's not so much any one section as the whole succession of climbs that come one after another in the finale. That makes it very hard," said Nibali, who will be flanked by the experienced Heinrich Haussler on Sunday. "I'll need to rely on the knowledge of teammates who know the course.
"The cobbles we rode today were significant and you'll feel it in your legs because you are burning so much energy in the race. If I'm honest, though, the cobbles heading to Roubaix are much harder. Here the pave's pretty good, although at some points it's a bit broken up, especially at the top of the Kwaremont. It's going to be hard. The difference can be made there, just by being at the front."
Nibali was keen to stress, however, that he does not count himself among the favourites for victory in a race with men like Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) and Sep Vanmarcke (EF-Drapac). "It's certainly not very suited to my characteristics. I'm more of a climber and these climbs seem to suit more powerful riders, but it's a race where it's worth competing and trying to do something," he said.
He took a diplomatic line, meanwhile, when asked if he had a tacit pact of non-aggression with Sagan, who notably made no attempt to shut down his attack on the Poggio two weeks ago. "No, but I would never do anything to spite Peter either," Nibali said of his former teammate. "I think he is the rider with the biggest chance of winning on Sunday."
A return in 2019?
This past week has seen a number of Grand Tour contenders travel north to Belgium to sample some cobbled racing ahead of stage 9 of this year's Tour de France, but unlike Nairo Quintana, Romain Bardet et al, Nibali's reconnaissance mission is not exactly with La Grande Boucle in mind. Instead, he seems keen to gather intelligence for a more concerted tilt at the Ronde in years to come.
"This Sunday will be a test for me to see if maybe in the future, next year or further on, I can do a more specific programme based around the Tour of Flanders," said Nibali, who acknowledged that Liège-Bastogne-Liège is the centrepiece of his spring campaign.
"Liège is the last race of the first part of my season and is the race that's best suited to my characteristics. I'll fly to the Tour of the Basque Country on Sunday night, and I'll look to maintain my condition there so I can try to do something good at the Ardennes Classics."
With Milan-San Remo already secured a fortnight ago, and with the Tour de France and an exceedingly difficult Innsbruck Worlds on the agenda later in the year, it would perhaps have been understandable had Nibali reneged on his earlier pledge to ride the Ronde, but the race has long held a certain fascination for the Italian. After finally persuading a team to allow him to line out, he was never going to pass up the opportunity.
"I made a lot of requests to come here and race in the past, but it didn't happen," Nibali said. "Now I'm coming here with respect for the race and my rivals. There are other objectives this year, but I'm going to try to do the best I can here."
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.