Giro d'Italia
Vincenzo Nibali has struggled in the Giro, but his...

Nibali facing one of the hardest challenges of his career

Vincenzo Nibali began stage 18 nearly 5:00 out of first place, but his team remains positive that he can turn the Giro on its head.

PINEROLO, Italy (VN) — Fans cheer Vincenzo Nibali as if he is leading the Giro d’Italia, but their Italian champion is living through what team Astana calls the “hardest point in his career.”

If it were baseball, the 31-year-old Sicilian would already be in the dugout. Not once, but three times Nibali struck out in this Giro d’Italia. It seemed small at first, losing 43 seconds to pink jersey holder Steven Kruijswijk of LottoNL – Jumbo Saturday, but then it turned worse. Nibali slipped 2:10 behind in what insiders call the race of truth, a time trial up Alpe di Siusi. Seeming not fully understanding his own abilities, Nibali attacked Tuesday to draw out the favorites but was unable to sustain the effort, falling behind and losing 1:47 by the finish in Andalo.

Nibali began the race as the heavy favorite to win the overall, but entering Thursday’s stage 18 he was fourth overall and trailed Kruijswijk by 4:43.

Astana called in its medical team from Torino to poke and prod Nibali before Thursday’s start in Milan’s outskirts. The doctors will reveal their findings to the team later Thursday, but followers sense trouble.

“His morale is not at its best but in life this happens,” team manager Giuseppe Martinelli said at Astana’s bus Thursday morning after Nibali stepped off to a hero’s welcome. Martinelli also guided Marco Pantani, Gilberto Simoni, and Damiani Cunego to grand tour wins and through difficult times.

“This happens to the big champions, and it’s happening to him. Maybe it is the hardest point of his career, but we have to look ahead.”

Not all is lost. In fact, the Astana camp appears in good spirits despite Nibali struggling to find his stride. He has already won all three grand tours. After his first, the 2010 Vuelta a España, he dominated the Giro d’Italia in 2013 and turned to the Tour de France to win in 2014.

In his Tour return last year, he struggled. Astana’s general manager Alexander Vinokourov criticized him and said he needed a mechanic to check his head. Nibali rebounded to win the La Toussuire stage and place fourth overall in the race.

“We need to see from the doctors what he has, I don’t know. Afterwards, we’ll decide what to do,” Martinelli added. “We need to get through today and start to think about the last two stages in the mountains.”

The Giro raced through the Po Valley to Pinerolo, west of Torino, on Thursday. Friday and Saturday, it heads through the surrounding Alps. The high passes will likely give more insight than the doctors are able to provide.

Nibali, off to the side Thursday morning, said, “my condition is what it is. I’m not going to make excuses for myself.”

Martinelli refuses to change plans to aim for second place, third place, or even a stage win. Instead, he still considers Nibali’s condition good enough to turn the Giro on its head.

“I have faith in him,” Martinelli said. “He’s a champion and a champion is always able to pull out something even when’s he’s at the bottom. Anything can happen.”