For more than six hours, he was bumped and jostled from all sides. All day long, there was scarcely room to turn and barely a lull in which to compose himself. Then, just as he was finding his feet in this alien terrain, he was dropped by the winner after attacking on a climb. And still, Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) reached Oudenaarde with the air of a man who had relished his first experience of the Tour of Flanders.
"It was like being in a washing machine," Nibali smiled on wheeling to a halt after crossing the line in 24th place, 1:18 behind winner Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors). "There wasn't a moment to catch your breath because the speed was so high all day. I didn't make any specific preparations for this race, so I think it went quite well. I'm very happy. I think it was a nice race, very particular. I'd never experienced anything like it before."
Nibali is perhaps the most complete rider in the contemporary peloton, and he was never likely to pass unnoticed in his maiden participation at the Tour of Flanders, not least given the form and brio that carried him to a stunning victory at Milan-San Remo two weeks ago.
His expedition to Flanders was no mere test mission ahead of the Tour de France's trek over the cobbles this July, but rather a genuine investigation into his own possibilities of winning on this kind of terrain at some point in the future. His first tilt at the Ronde, which included an attack on the Kruisberg that sparked Terpstra's winning move, suggested that this experiment is worth repeating.
For the first two hours after leaving the start in Antwerp, however, Nibali must have wondered what he had signed up for. Spitting rain made for treacherous roads, and low, drooping clouds gave the day a claustrophobic feel. The early intensity was such that the Sicilian had the sense he was chasing the race as much as he was participating in it.
"Quick-Step wouldn't let any break go early on, so the average speed was high," Nibali said. "I didn't know what I was facing, because this was a race I'd only ever seen on television up to now. It was a way, a battle from the first kilometre. I was expecting a calmer pace in the first part, but instead, it was lively from start to finish."
In his pre-race press conference on Friday, Nibali bashfully confessed that he didn't know all the names of the crucial hellingen, but he picked up the rudiments of the secret language of the cobbles and hills quickly enough as the afternoon progressed. Immersion is often the best teacher.
Nibali was present and correct on the first major shake-up on the Koppenberg, cresting the summit with men like Terpstra, Peter Sagan and Philippe Gilbert, and he remained in the same august company after Greg Van Avermaet's onslaught over the Taaienberg.
Come the Kruisberg, Nibali was sufficiently emboldened as to put in a stinging acceleration that briefly carried him clear of the favourites with 26 kilometres remaining. Terpstra zoomed across the gap shortly afterwards, however, and then set such a relentless pace that even Nibali had to yield.
"I was a bit afraid to attack but I wanted to have a go," Nibali said. "That was a stretch where the road was climbing gradually. We'd spoken about anticipating the attacks, sometimes they can work out well, but when Terpstra he came up to me, all I could do was try to stay on his wheel because honestly, he was riding at a really very high rhythm. Then my legs said no."
Much as Bahrain-Merida directeur sportif Rik Verbrugghe had suggested to Cyclingnews last week, Nibali was able to compete with the best on the steeper climbs, but the superior power of Terpstra et al exacted a toll on the approach to each ascent.
"These are very fast and explosive riders. They were already doing a big sprint before the climbs just to get there in the first positions," said Nibali, who was due to board an 8.30pm flight from Brussels to Bilbao to participate in the Tour of the Basque Country, which gets underway on Monday.
Nibali will return to Belgium at the end of the month to compete at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and La Doyenne is undoubtedly a more realistic target for the Italian at this point in time. Even in the moments after crossing the line on Sunday, however, he seemed to be warming to the idea of returning to the Ronde.
"I'd need to make a more tailored build-up for a race like this, and I'd need to do all of the races leading up to it. I came here a bit out of the blue, so I knew I could do well but I also knew I could struggle. That's normal," said Nibali, who was still smiling as he pedalled off towards his team bus.
"It was a very difficult race but also a very beautiful one. Those are the two adjectives I'd use to describe it."
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