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NibaliWatch: Something Brewing?

I wrote off Vincenzo Nibali before the Giro. Was I an idiot?

Nibali attacking on the Umbrailpass
Luk Benies

Vincenzo Nibali is a lot of things to a lot of cycling fans. To southern Italy, he’s a standard-bearer. To the rest of the country, he may or may not be their cup of tea, but it’s the only cup on the menu at the moment. To the rest of the world, he’s a bit of an enigma. Not overly warm and charming, Nibali is a constant brooding presence in the peloton, and as a Tour de France champion and a winner of all three grand tours, he’s a man to watch.

None of that stopped me from dismissing his chances in this year’s Giro, on the logic that he won last year against a thin field and only when the title fell in his lap following Steven Kruijswijk’s career suicide mission with a snowbank. But I didn’t stop there; I spent a few days on social media making fun of people who had listed him as a favorite, accusing them of just repeating Giro press releases. This Nibali, I like him a whole lot, he has character. But he doesn’t have the climbing legs.

Fast forward two weeks and ... well, if I said I valued my reputation as a cycling savant, I’d be lying, or maybe just very sad. But still, he’s making me look not all that samrt.* Nibali now sits 1.12 back of the overall lead, after hacking away at his rivals all day en route to the stage win, time gap, and bonus seconds.

*huh?! HUH?!

What Nibali is doing is reminding me of why I love cycling. He’s doing stuff like this [Strongly recommend the sound on]:

Nibali had the presence of mind to bunny-hop the trickle of water across the road right before a hairpin bend, presumably because wet tires can slide out. He also schooled Mikel Landa in the finale, putting him on the front and then using his expert cornering to come past the Basque in the final few meters:

In between, he and Landa descended the Stelvio/Umbrailpass masterfully, and if you want to kill a few hours with your mouth hanging open, search YouTube with the words “discesa nibali.” Nibali’s bike handling skills netted him 20 seconds over Nairo Quintana today alone. The next day when Quintana’s technical ability gains him time on Nibali will probably be the first.

Another thing Nibali did today was attack when Tom Dumoulin was left behind to do his business by the roadside. Based on timestamps in the live thread, that drama began to unfold at 7:02am my time, and there was an immediate reaction by the GC riders to slow down a bit. At 7:04 Ilnur Zakarin made an acceleration, but was told to wait by his team manager. For some amount of time, Dumoulin would be given a chance to come back. How much time? For this, there are no written rules. And with that in mind, at 7:08, six minutes after Dumoulin disappears, Nibali puts his Bahrain Merida teammate Franco Pellizotti on the front and lifts the pace. He was subtle about it I suppose, but eventually the race was on, and Nibali was the man making the decision.

Afterward he said as much: that he doesn’t expect anyone to wait for him, so if the race is on, tough shit. [Sorry.] Unapologetic, forthright and ruthless. It isn’t always pretty, but this is a competitor, through and through. I can’t say what’s in a stranger’s mind, like ever, but I imagine it’s not the cute story line about restoring Italian pride, or the etiquette rules, or even winning a stage. He’s focused on the overall win, on his gaps to Quintana and Dumoulin, and on a plan of attack for the next five days. Those guys are the only ones in his way, and they will be shown no mercy until Milan.

Incredibly, with only a good but unspectacular Quintana, and now a suddenly questionable Dumoulin, in his way, it remains possible for Nibali to come all the way back (from three minutes down) and win his third Giro d’Italia. Granted, he’s getting a slight assist from a parcours that doesn’t overemphasize his weakness, the long, steep climbs. Quintana would presumably drop him again, and maybe Dumoulin too, since let’s face it, climbing is not the sharpest tool in his Swiss Army knife of cycling merits. Someday it works, other days it doesn’t, and which one comes next is anyone’s guess.

But even in a mountainous Giro it doesn’t necessarily matter, because his other tools are just so impressive. Cycling is not a contest to see who can stay upright and win a competition between power meters. It’s a contest to see who can get to the line quickest using every possible legal method. If Dumoulin’s digestive tract puts two minutes in play, and the road is looking favorable, your job is to attack and gain time on your rivals. If there’s a long descent back to the finish line, all the better for Nibali to reach in his bag of tricks and put pressure on everyone with his breakneck descending speed. And if he has to get over some cobblestones, well, before you know it he’s passed through that storied challenge. If he has to try to punch his way up a short climb on a World’s course to have any hope of making it stick. Nibali doesn’t waste time. Give him an inch of road and he will try to hurt you with it.

Will it be enough? One thing we garnered from last year is that he can put together a third week peak when it looks like all hope is lost. If Quintana doesn’t have it, well, Nibali may be one uphill effort away from getting the maglia rosa by enough seconds to fend off Dumoulin in Milan. Wednesday isn’t much of a test, but Thursday’s Dolomite adventure ends with a long, tough descent and a short climb. Friday is a classic MTF, not good for him, but if Nibali’s form gets hot, there’s no telling. Then Saturday with a climb to eliminate the sprinters and a downhill/flat finish for one of the GC guys to sort out.

Then a short time trial. Nibali got smoked by Dumoulin in the first one, a true power test where there wasn’t much you could do about the Dutchman. But he was also only 7 seconds behind Vasil Kiryienka, something of a specialist against the watch, and he took bits of time out of everyone else. His history against the watch isn’t spectacular, but he can manage pretty well when it matters. If Dumoulin goes awry in the mountains, you can bet Nibali will beat Quintana in the last stage.

At some point mental fitness plays a role in all sports, and cycling is absolutely no exception. And here is where Nibali’s all-round ability, history of smart cycling, and variable class tells a story. This is a guy who will take whatever he has and use it as best he can. That’s the product of confidence, intelligence and mental strength. We’ve seen this strength on display so many times over the years. I imagine it was honed in part by being a southerner who moved up north to make it in cycling. This wasn’t in the 1950s, so it’s not something out of a Rocky movie, but his entry into the sport involved very little pampering and probably lots of challenges to his status and his hopes. For whatever I don’t know about Nibali’s early life, I feel pretty sure he did not come into this sport with a sense of entitlement.

Like I said, this is a Giro course for all-rounders, and Nibali’s all-round skills are lighting up the race. It sounds crazy to think he could actually overcome this star-studded field and win, but that’s a clear possibility right now. And despite how foolish my predictions will look if he pulls it off, I can’t help but root for him. The mental toughness, the ruthless competitiveness, and the multitude of tricks up his sleeve make him easily the most fascinating character left standing, and a reminder of how there are a million ways to win a race, if someone is clever enough to make use of them. It’s a reminder of why this sport is so much more fun than the march of the power meters. Vinny is bringing the Giro to life.

Tim de Waele