FLORENCE, Italy (VN) — Few grand tour cyclists take on the monuments like Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida). None in recent times have been as successful as he has. Now for the first time, in addition to riding the dirt roads of Strade Bianche, he will aim at the 2018 Tour of Flanders on April 1.
The Italian confirmed the logistics — involving a rushed drive to the airport for the País Vasco stage race the next day in Spain — and explained the reasoning behind his decision.
“I’ve seen it on TV; it’s always drawn me in,” he told VeloNews. “I’ll admit, I know nothing about the race. Nothing. Those men are Greg Van Avermaet and Peter Sagan.”
His reasoning is two-fold: practice to someday win Flanders and test his legs for the Tour de France. The Tour de France this year, similar to the year he won in 2014, features stretches of Paris-Roubaix cobbles.
Tour stars like Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) already previewed the cobbles. Nibali will do the same, but racing the big pavers that cover northern France’s farm roads is out of the question.
“I’m not doing Roubaix! That’s for sure!” Nibali said. “I’ve already did my bit in the 2014 in the worst possible conditions.”
Nibali’s yellow leader’s jersey led the way over the mud-covered cobbles in 2014. Astana pulled him along and Nibali, in a tour de force, gained two minutes on his rivals.
He also completed three out of the other five monuments, winning Lombardia twice, placing third in Milano-Sanremo, and second in Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Now a fourth race is on his schedule. The flat and tortuous roads of Paris-Roubaix would overwhelm, but Flanders’s hellingen and cobbled bergs offer opportunity.
“It’s a big thing, completely new. I don’t know the route, I don’t know the race,” Nibali said.
“I wanted to do it to see if I can return in the future and take a serious swipe at it. I remember what [former general manager] Giancarlo Ferretti told me when I first turned professional with Team Fassa Bortolo. The first two times, maximum three, you got to see how the race is, and then the fourth time, you go to win.
“Anyway, it’s a great way to add to my confidence for the Tour’s pavé stages.”
The race on Easter Sunday will consist of two parts, the first the 267 kilometers from the start in Antwerp to the finish in Oudenaarde — 18 climbs, many cobbled like the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg — the second a mad-dash to the Brussels Airport for the flight to Bilbao, Spain.
“I’m definitely doing Flanders, but the only thing is that we have to schedule it well because the Vuelta a País Vasco is the day after … the day after,” he said.
“It’s a demanding one-day race, it’s going to take some energy away from me for País Vasco, but together, it’s a good block of work and also serves well for the Ardennes classics.”
Nibali considered the flight options when he spoke. One option involves a private jet, perhaps bike manufacturer Merida funds it or it comes via Prince Nasser of the Persian Gulf island state Bahrain, who started the team with Nibali last year. The other likely idea is that a team helper drives him immediately to Brussels Airport for the Brussels Airlines flight 3715. The one-hour, 55-minute trip to Bilbao arrives at 10:40 p.m., enough time for dinner and a night’s rest before the first stage of País Vasco, an hour’s drive from the airport to Zarautz.
Few grand tour riders consider starting such races like the emerging Italian classic Strade Bianche with its 63 kilometers of white gravel roads or the often crash-riddled Flanders. And none has ever won a monument out of the current block of grand tour winners, including Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana, Tom Dumoulin, or the recently retired Alberto Contador. Nibali has with Lombardia, and he has also committed himself to trying with Flanders over the coming years.
“It’s going to be new, for sure,” added Nibali. “And it’s going to be fun when you consider I’ve never raced those roads at all, not even in the small races like De Panne or Harelbeke.”