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Bahrain-Merida says Nibali on track for Tour despite quiet Dauphiné

Vincenzo Nibali was a nowhere man in last week’s Critérium du Dauphiné.

The Italian superstar typically nudges into the frame in just about any race he starts, but the Bahrain-Merida captain was far from the sharp end of the action in the important Tour de France tuneup race across the French Alps.

Nibali finished a discrete 24th overall and only punched into the top 20 on one stage the entire week. That raised a lot of questions, but Bahrain-Merida brass was quick to tamp down concerns that their franchise rider will not be ready for the Tour.

“There are no alarm bells at the moment,” said Bahrain-Merida manager Brent Copeland. “Vincenzo is doing well. Everything is going to plan.”

The “plan” is to keep Nibali on a slow boil until the second half of July and challenge Team Sky and Movistar for the yellow jersey when it really counts.

That’s an all-or-nothing gamble for Nibali and Bahrain-Merida.

The 33-year-old Nibali has put the Tour at the center of his calendar for 2018, yet his performances this spring hardly engender confidence about his chances of winning the yellow tunic July 29 in Paris.

A winner in 2014, the self-styled “shark” has been under the radar all season. Take away his dramatic victory at Milano-Sanremo, and there have been few results this season to suggest that Nibali will be a factor in July. There were a few other speed bumps this spring, including a stomach bug that derailed Nibali’s season debut in Argentina as well as another stomach issue at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Right now, it’s all in for the Tour.

No one’s panicking inside Bahrain-Merida, at least not yet.

“Nibali is in a super place at the moment,” Copeland said in a telephone interview. “He’s serene and tranquil. He knows exactly where he needs to be to be ready for the Tour.”

Copeland pointed out a few factors for Nibali’s quiet Dauphiné performance.

First, the Tour starts a week later than normal due to soccer’s World Cup. And a relatively flat first half of the Tour means that the first true climbing stage doesn’t come until stage 10 on July 17.

Simply put, the mountains of the Dauphiné came way too early for Nibali and the team’s plans to hit their peak in the second half of July.

“Everyone is expecting [Nibali] to be there because he is always there,” Copeland said of the Dauphiné. “Some are up there who normally might not be, so why isn’t Nibali there? There is still a lot of time to work on his final condition for the Tour. As far as Vincenzo is concerned, everything is going to plan.”

At 33, Nibali is one of the most experienced and successful grand tour racers of his generation. His consistency and ability to read the race means Nibali is almost always within podium range of any grand tour he starts.

Nibali’s grand tour stats are impressive by any measure: in 18 grand tour appearances, he’s won four — the 2010 Vuelta a España, 2014 Tour, and the 2013 and 2016 Giro d’Italia — and finished six times on the podium. Since 2009, he’s only twice been out of the top 7 in any grand tour he’s started — a DNF in the 2015 Vuelta and 30th in the 2016 Tour.

Nibali should be a favorite when the Tour starts July 7 in France’s Vendée. And despite seeing some of the Tour favorites already flying high, Copeland said the team is confident Nibali is on the right track.

“It’s no secret that Vincenzo is targeting the Tour,” Copeland said. “When you go to a race with Nibali, he’s so consistent, it’s always to race for the podium or the win. There’s no secret to that.”

Nibali will attend a high-altitude training camp in the Italian Dolomites and race the Italian national championships later this month before sharpening his form in his approach to the Tour.

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