The name escaped him, so Vincenzo Nibali turned to consult with Bahrain-Merida directeur sportif Rik Verbrugghe. “What’s the one that starts out like this?” Nibali asked sotto voce, tilting his hand to indicate the gradient. “Ah, the Kwaremont,” Verbrugghe said, and Nibali turned back to his audience and smiled bashfully: “I’m sorry, I don’t remember the names.”
Nibali may not yet be wholly familiar with the sacred language of Flemish cycling, but few riders in world cycling have proved as fluent on the same variety of terrains as the Sicilian, whose palmarès includes all three Grand Tours and two of the five Monuments. He may be making his Tour of Flanders debut on Sunday, but based on past pedigree and current form, nobody in the race would dare to dismiss his chances.
After arriving in Kortrijk on Thursday evening, Nibali reconnoitred the final 70 kilometres of the Ronde course on Friday morning, a ride that included two ascents of the finale over the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg.
The Kwatemont’s lengthy sea of jagged cobbles may have whetted Nibali’s appetite, but he is mindful that the Ronde is a race often decided by sheer force rather than by invention of the kind that carried him to Milan-San Remo victory two weeks ago after a daring raid over the Poggio.
“Riding the parcours this morning gave me plenty of ideas, but I think you need to get to know a race like this before you can get carried away by the idea of inventing something,” Nibali told a press conference in Kortrijk on Friday afternoon. “My condition is good, so maybe I’ll be able to find space to invent something. But I think that in Flanders, you can invent very little.”
Despite the flags on the roadside, partisanship is in surprisingly short supply in Flanders, and foreign riders who venture north to sample the Ronde are respected. Nibali is no exception. “Welcome Vincenzo Nibali, and good luck in your first Ronde,” read the headline in Het Laatste Nieuws, and on Friday afternoon, local reporters were eager to hear the Italian’s opinion of the difficulties of their race.
A return in 2019?
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