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Can Vinny Do It? Part II

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Ursula has broken down the overall scene at the Vuelta a Espana, which for the time being boils down to people wondering if Vincenzo Nibali will take a big enough bite of flesh out of race leader Joaquim Rodriguez or Zeke Mosquera or anyone else within shouting range in Wednesday's massively important* time trial.

[*by important I mean not so much important in cycling as to the history of all mankind.]

I got to thinking, when not falling off my "new" cross bike, about how to assess Vinny's time trialling abilities heading into this race. it's easy to say so-and-so is "a good time triallist" but the reality is forever nuanced. Good for his age? Good over certain types of courses? Certain lengths? In one-week races or at the end of grand tours?

Join me in a deeper look, won't you?

In Nibali's case, he seems to have had a gift for the discipline since forever:

  • At age 21, he finished fourth in the 2005 Italian national championships behind Marco Pinotti, Marzio Bruseghin, and Dario Cioni -- not too shabby, even for an Italian time trial. 
  • At 22, his first season with Liquigas, the Shark was 16th in the World Championships, second behind George Hincapie in BeNeLux, fourth in Denmark and fifth in the Nats. Denmark and BeNeLux were under 20km and flat, while the worlds course in Salzburg was a bit more challenging.
  • In 2007, now 23, he was second in the Nats, 12th in BeNeLux, 19th in the worlds, and raced his first grand tour (Giro, duh), coming in 24th in the uphill time trial to Oropa and 7th in the final ITT to Verona. None of this is overly impressive, but for a 23 year old it was a good learning year.
  • In 2008, age 24, Nibali scored his first really telling result, coming 7th in the rolling Pesaro-Urbino 40km ITT in the Giro, sandwiched between Gustav Larsson and Denis Menchov on the stage. He was also a respectable 18th in the Plan de Corones climb, before chunking the final stage ITT. Similarly he was solid in the 2008 Tour time trial to Cholet, stage 4, finishing 9th and within seconds of the top 11 guys (big dropoff after that). If I recall that was a tough course, but only 30km. Nibali was mediocre in the stage 20 crono, but a lot of guys mailed that one in. After two grand tours young Vinny couldn't do much better than 14th at the Olympics and wound down from there.
  • In 2009, now 25, he was tenth in Pais Vasco, on what must have been a hilly course (Gesink was 8th). Vinny then placed 5th and 14th in the Dauphine cronos (coughtrainingracecough), and 25th in the Tour's Annecy ITT, late in the game. Given how well he did on Mont Ventoux a few days later, it's hard to know what to make of the Annecy result except to say he wasn't overly exhausted.
  • Finally this year, he won a crono in Argentina, placed 4th in the Plan de Corones uphill madness, and 5th in the final day's time trial to Verona, all of 15km. 

And that's it for data points on Vinny. The best I can say about him is that he has always been good over a variety of terrain. He's truly got the discipline down, as opposed to other smaller, climber types who excel at uphill time trials but nothing more. He's not Franco Pellizotti, who can win a mountain time trial because he likes mountains, not time trials. An important distinction. What I am not seeing is the ability to go super long, so I am tempering my prediction some on that basis. His best results have been on the short rides, with solid results in the mid-range (30km) stuff as well. 

I say he finishes top five, regardless of this caveat. There are only a handful of strong cronomen in this field, guys like Luis Leon Sanchez, Christian VandeVelde, Marzio Bruseghin, Gustav Larsson. [update] Missed one name: Cancellara, Fabian. So OK, top six. Given the rest day and the immense incentive Nibali has, I'd put him squarely in that group, with Larsson for the win second place. Moreover, "long" is relative to weather conditions; with a tailwind on this flat course tomorrow's stage could play out like a mid-range crono, which might limit the other guys' misery a bit, but will put Vinny squarely in his comfort zone. Anything less than top ten in this field and I think we have to question if Nibali can win a grand tour, any grand tour.

Photo by Tifosa for the Podium Cafe