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Giro d’Italia 2020 Stage 9: Vincenzo’s vigil

Sowing the seeds of doubt, uncertainty, anxiety and indecision. That has been the modus operandi of Vincenzo Nibali and his team to date in this Giro d’Italia. Without doing anything to definitively suggest he is the strongest General Classification rider he has convinced many of us that he’s the favourite.

His Trek team, of course, have been highly visible. One of only two or three teams who look capable of controlling a bike race they have been front and centre at key moments. But more than this, Nibali – The Wily Veteran™ – has nipped to the front to make a point from time to time.

At moments of peril, not when you would expect a GC rider to attack but when the peloton has been strung out and really racing, through winding village streets or on a quick descent, he has appeared. We’ve edged our collective buttocks toward the lip of our seats, quizzically, to ask: Nibali…eh? What’s this?

Once he’s elbowed himself into our (and his rivals) consciousness he eases back and hides again. Point made. Old Nibbles is looking good, we think, without thinking, and this becomes the truth of it.

Just how good he is, we don’t know.

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Today might’ve been the day when he made a bid for Pink, for the simple reason that (you might have heard) there’s a virus knocking around and we can’t be sure the race will make it to Milan. If our Giro is cut short, and we have a winner-by-default situation on our hands, it would surely be useful to find yourself in possession of the Pink Jersey when those questions are being asked. Also, today was a mountainous one.

The complication of Stage 9 was the truly miserable conditions. Rain, wind, single figures cold. Jackets were on and off. Faces were set and grim. Survival was job number one.

Nibali, of course, was short-sleeved all day. Probably for all the reasons explained above. It’s part of the show. He is also known to endure cold and bad weather with the best of them. On occasions his team came to the front and upped the pace, the peloton on tenterhooks at the imminent full-scale attack.

There was tension and nervousness. Rivals coiled, like springs, burning mental energy as well as physical in the anticipation of the moment that was imminent. And then Trek would melt away. Take stock. Look into the eyes of rivals and ask questions that went beyond mere words.

Approaching the final (of many) climbs, the steady ten kilometres to the summit at Roccaraso, the break of five hardy, suffering souls – Warbasse, Bjerg, Guerrero, Frankiny and Castroviejo – were clear and would win the day. Nibali, we knew, would launch from the group of favourites behind in search of time gains. He stalked Pink Jersey Joao Almeida like, well…a veteran Italian cyclist on the tail of a plucky Portuguese kid.

For the win, it was Ruben Guerrero of EF Pro Cycling and Jonathan Castroviejo of Ineos Grenadiers (I’m sorry, I still feel daft calling them that, and I shouldn’t have to… JEEsus!) who stretched clear in the final few kilometres and treated us to an agonising, bike-wrenching slo-mo ‘sprint’ on the final 12% ramps.

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The moment when Castroviejo cracked, head slumped, limbs turned to rubber, was cruel. Guerrero dragged himself to the line ten metres clear and pointed to himself repeatedly and with great aggression. “Me,” we can only assume he was saying, “me won!!”

And back down the road Nibali waited, and hovered, and loitered, and lingered, before crossing the line and losing a tiny handful of seconds to rivals Fuglsang and Kelderman. Almeida still in Pink. As you were chaps.

And with that, and with a rest day tomorrow, Nibali continues his intriguing vigil in our collective head.

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