Vincenzo Nibali knows the drill by now. The Giro d'Italia reaches its third weekend, and a nation turns its lonely eyes to him. Or, as the journalist Angelo Costa put it in Tuttobici: "Italy places its hopes in him when he rides the Grand Tours, when he rides the big Classics and when he rides his bike to the supermarket."
At times, the bike race seems almost incidental to this year's Giro, which is increasingly couching itself as a symbol of Italy's response to the coronavirus pandemic. EF Pro Cycling's request to end the Giro a week early was perceived in some quarters as an attack on the race – "Shameful," read one headline – and, ergo, a slight on Italy itself.
Before trying to win the race, then, Nibali was called upon to defend it. When he appeared via video link on RAI television's Processo alla Tappa programme on Friday evening, he was asked for his thoughts on the EF Pro Cycling proposal and the strength of the COVID-19 protocols at the Giro.
"To be honest, I was never told about the idea to stop the race," Nibali said. "For sure, there are lots of questions. I think it all depends on what the [Italian] government will say. They are the ones who will say if we can race or not. But I think the Giro d'Italia is important for Italy, so before stopping such an important race, I'd think twice about it."
Nibali's approach to racing in a time of pandemic has been more cautious than most. Since competition resumed in August, he stuck rigorously to a diet of Italian racing, lining out in a succession of one-day events on home roads that month rather than flying further afield for stage races. His Giro 'bubble' effectively began then.
"I can only say that the bubble is still strong around us," he said on Friday evening.
And yet, uncertainty continues to permeate the race, with even the maglia rosa himself, João Almeida, confessing that he doesn't know if the Giro will make it as far as Milan a week on Sunday. Even if it does, the risk of snow in the high mountains casts doubt on at least part of the route.
Historically, Nibali has approached the final week of the Giro in the same way Eliud Kipchoge enters the last six miles of a marathon: confident that he can outlast everybody around him. In this year's Giro, the finish line might arrive sooner than he thinks, placing all the more emphasis on this weekend's GC doubleheader, where Saturday's Valdobbiadene time trial is followed by the tough mountain stage to Piancavallo 24 hours later.
"This year because of COVID and the weather, we're living day to day a bit more, because you never know what will happen tomorrow," Nibali's coach Paolo Slongo told Cyclingnewson Friday. "This weekend is maybe more important than in other Grand Tours, because it's better to start taking something home to make yourself more secure ahead of a week with stages that might or might not happen."
Nibali enters the third weekend of the Giro in fifth place overall, 1:07 down on Almeida, after a largely solid if unspectacular display to this point. A strong showing at Etna on stage 3 was countered by a mild setback at Roccaraso last weekend, while his subdued opening time trial in Palermo was mitigated by adverse wind conditions.
This weekend, Slongo suggested, would shed greater light on the contenders: "It could reshape the GC in a more 'correct' way, so to speak. You can't lie in this time trial."
The 34.1km test from Conegliano to Valdobbiadene follows a rolling course through the heart of Prosecco country, which includes the stiff early climb of Muro di Ca' del Poggio after barely 7km.
"It's only a little more than a kilometre but it's a 14 per cent average, which is unusual for a time trial, so you have to dose your strength well and get your gears right," said Slongo.
Nibali will see the course for the first time on Saturday morning, although he can rely on the reconnaissance carried out by Slongo, who hails from nearby Treviso. "Given the distance, there'll be gaps," said Slongo. "Based on his past performances, I think Vincenzo should be similar to Wilco Kelderman and he could gain something on the others, although Almeida is an unknown."
Speaking on Friday afternoon, Nibali echoed that assessment, highlighting the threat posed by Kelderman, currently second overall at 40 seconds.
"It's hard to say if I can gain time on Almeida," Nibali said. "We know how much Deceuninck-QuickStep work on time trials. I'm expecting he'll do a good time trial. And the guy who I think is most on form is Kelderman, and nobody is talking about him."
On Sunday, the Giro shifts gear abruptly, moving into the neighbouring Friuli region for a stage with four mountain passes. The Sella Chianzutan, the Forcella di Monte Rest – scene of Stephen Roche's attack on teammate Roberto Visentini's maglia rosa in 1987 – and the Forecella di Pala Barzana precede the category-1 haul to the finish at Piancavallo. Anybody who fails to recover from the preceding day's time trial could pay a heavy price.
"A time trial like Saturday's has to be done flat out," Nibali said. "I could lose something to the specialists there, but the next day, with a hard climb like Piancavallo, the intense effort could weigh on some riders' legs."
Slongo, meanwhile, noted that Nibali's time trial position was tailored specifically to facilitate such a transition.
"We've always had a good compromise whereby Vincenzo is maybe a bit less aerodynamic than others, but then the next day he doesn't have muscular problems when he's back on his road bike," Slongo said. "That could be an advantage in a race like this Giro where you have a mountain stage immediately after the time trial."
Nibali's Trek-Segafredo team were prominent in trying to tee him up at Roccaraso a week ago, but the Sicilian has looked increasingly isolated in the finale of hilly stages since, with Giulio Ciccone shy of form after contracting coronavirus in August and Gianluca Brambilla among the walking wounded after crashing at Vasto.
"On the climbs, I just try to look after myself and I hope that things get better in the days ahead," said Nibali.
It's not entirely clear, of course, just how many days there are still ahead in this Giro. Nibali can't afford to run out of road. Two defining stages await.
"There's an important weekend ahead of us, and we can only take stock on Sunday evening," Nibali said.
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