Pesaro may have been festooned in pink to celebrate the visit of the Giro d’Italia but, by the time Vincenzo Nibali emerged from anti-doping following stage 8, it was beginning to have the air of the coastal town they forgot to close down.
Grey waves were crashing onto wet sand on the seafront, while leaden drops of rain were falling steadily over the finishing straight, where the podium and television area were already being dismantled. The boisterous crowds that had lined the final kilometres had long since dissipated in search of shelter.
As Nibali soft-pedalled towards the Bahrain-Merida bus, he slowed to offer a perfunctory account of the Giro’s longest day. The 239km leg along the Adriatic coast had passed off without incident – “Nothing to report,” he said – and thoughts were already turning to Sunday’s pivotal time trial to San Marino.
So far on the Giro, few days have been like Sunday, where the overall favourites will face off on the 34km course from the Adriatic coast to the mountaintop republic. Nibali and his rivals have been eyeing one another closely all week. Sunday will confirm or rebut their impressions. “Tomorrow we’ll take stock of the situation,” Nibali said.
Nibali reaches the final act of the Giro’s opening week in 16th place overall, 6:03 down on maglia rosa Valerio Conti (UAE Emirates), though the gaps of greater concern the Sicilian are to Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) and Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott). He will set off from Riccione 39 seconds down on Roglič and just 4 behind Yates.
Roglič, an emphatic winner of the opening time trial in Bologna, is the overwhelming favourite to triumph again here. Nibali’s coach Paolo Slongo acknowledged that a successful outing for Nibali would entail limiting his losses to the Slovenian and roughly breaking even with Yates, whose improvements against the clock carried him to time trial victory at Paris-Nice earlier this season.
“I think there’s a bit of fatigue in the peloton, but not a lot so the specialists will have the better of Vincenzo here,” Slongo told Cyclingnews. “When I say specialists, I mean Roglič above all, but then there’s Yates, who I think goes very well in time trials. I think it would be a positive day for us if we got close to Yates.
“Over 30km, you’ll see a lot of things. The leaders will have to show their cards on Sunday and finally show they are.”
Slongo has coached Nibali since his days at Liquigas and reads the runes of his charge’s form better than most. Ahead of the 8km time trial in Bologna, he was just a second out in his prediction of Nibali’s finishing time, though he stressed that his projections for the San Marino test were still being defined. Yates and Nibali lost over two seconds per kilometre to Roglič in Bologna, but Slongo expects both men to fare better here.
“I haven’t studied the numbers very closely yet, but I don’t think Yates or Nibali will lose more than 30 or 40 seconds to Roglič,” Slongo said. “That’s my idea but a very rough one at this point. Let’s hope it’s like that.”
A real time trial
Although the road climbs throughout the stage 9 time trial – steadily at first, before the steeper 12km haul towards the finish – Slongo explained that there was little or no benefit to be had in changing to a lighter bike for the final segment.
“The weight of the time trial bike will only be 8kg, or maybe 7.9kg, and even on a climb of 6-7 per cent, aerodynamics are still important, so I think it’s advantageous to do it all with a time trial bike,” Slongo said.
“It’s a real time trial, because it’s over 30km in length and a lot of the time trial is flat and then undulating, before the real climb in the finale. It’s got gradients of about 6-7 per cent and it doesn’t go up steadily, so it’s a time trial where you’re going to have to be constantly pushing.
“It’s a time trial that Vincenzo should like. He has always put in good performances in time trials like this in the past.”
Nibali’s last victory in a time trial came on the 2013 Giro, when he won the uphill test from Mori to Polsa and, while his performances against the watch appeared to diminish in the latter part of his time at Astana, he has recovered somewhat in recent seasons.
He will draw encouragement, too, from his third-place finish in Bologna last week, ahead of no less a figure than Tom Dumoulin, who was forced out of the Giro following his crash in Frascati on stage 4.
In Dumoulin’s absence, Roglič is the GC man expected to gain most from the San Marino time trial, but in the longer run, one senses that the Bahrain-Merida camp are even more concerned by Yates, who absorbed the lessons of last year’s Giro disappointment and applied them successfully en route to Vuelta a España victory.
“All of our rivals are dangerous,” Slongo stressed. “But Yates is a rider who has already won a Grand Tour and he’s shown that he can handle the third week. He showed that at the Vuelta last year. We’ve seen that he’s a strong rider, and he’s built towards the Giro just like Vincenzo. In my opinion, he’s a very dangerous man.”