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Bahrain director: ‘Pretty cool’ to see Nibali racing Tour of Flanders

The Italian grand tour champion will make his Tour of Flanders debut on Sunday — and how he fares is anyone's guess.

GHENT, Belgium (VN) — Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) did it in Milano-Sanremo. Now “it’s pretty cool” to have the Italian grand tour star starting the Tour of Flanders on Sunday and trying to fight over the cobbles to victory, his sport director said.

“The Shark” from Messina, Sicily, is racing for the first time after his solo surprise victory in Milano-Sanremo two weeks ago. The 33-year-old winner of all three grand tours is debuting in Sunday’s monument to practice riding on cobblestones ahead of the 2018 Tour de France and with the dream of an eventual victory.

“It’s a cliché, but if you win like he did in Milano-Sanremo, everything goes smoother afterwards,” Bahrain sport director Tristan Hoffman told VeloNews.

“It’s fantastic to see him take a win like that early in the season. I’m excited. Nibali is an extraordinary rider. And he did that, so chapeau. [related title=”More on Vincenzo Nibali” align=”left” tag=”Vincenzo-Nibali”]

“And now Flanders? It’s pretty cool, but it’s not the first time a GC rider has done that, but you see that his focus is a little different. It’s going to be good for him.”

Nibali’s resume includes overall titles in the Giro d’Italia (2013, 2016), the Tour de France (2014), and the Vuelta a España (2010). His solo attack on the Poggio and subsequent 6.4-kilometer solo ride to the Via Roma was a dream-like victory scenario at Sanremo not seen in decades.

Though he’s building for the Tour de France this July, the Sanremo win appears to have opened the door to other possibilities. Or at least the freedom to dream.

Nibali has won the Italian autumn monument Il Lombardia twice before. He came close to winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the world championships. The Sanremo victory was not a complete shock, but even Nibali admitted it was not something on his mind when the race began.

The same is true for the Belgian monument, the Tour of Flanders that begins in Antwerp and ends after 265km. In between are several brutal cobble sectors and climbs.

Could Nibali survive the early selections and fight for victory with classics heavy-hitters Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), and 2017 winner Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors)? Perhaps he could fly free on the top of the Oude Kwaremont and solo over the Paterberg to the finish in Oudenaarde.

“You know with Alejandro Valverde in Dwars door Vlaanderen, and with Vincenzo Nibali on Sunday in the Tour of Flanders: they are really strong and talented guys. They can do everything,” said Dwars door Vlaanderen winner Yves Lampaert of Quick-Step Floors.

“You have to watch them. You have to … You can’t let them go like they are nobody. If they come here, it’s not for training.”

Nibali’s trainer and sport director Paolo Slongo said, “In the past, there were champions who won the classics and grand tours. [Nibali is] the most complete rider riding today, who can win a one-day race and a grand tour.

“I didn’t say that he could win [the cobbled classics], but a rider like him could potentially win a little of everything. On the pavé, he handles himself well. He remains a stage racer with an ability for a certain type of one-day races. Yes, though, he can win almost everything.”

Given Nibali’s light weight and small build, he is suited for the long climbs. However, he did well and added to his overall lead when the Tour de France covered the muddy Paris-Roubaix cobbles in 2014. He could take additional inspiration from Alejandro Valverde’s ride in Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday.

Slongo added, “It’s not exactly suited to him, but you never know in life.”

Hoffman said the team has Sonny Colbrelli and Heinrich Haussler as leaders. Nibali, given his lake of racing experience, “is not a favorite” for Flanders.

“He’s an outsider, but we know that he can handle the bike well. He’s good in positioning,” continued Hoffman.

“Look at Milano-Sanremo. He was not 100 percent in shape but he still managed to win. Maybe he can improve a little bit and then … who knows?”

Nibali was due to arrive in Kortrijk, Belgium Thursday afternoon. He has never raced any of the Flemish cobbled races, so he and his teammates will train on portions of the Flanders course Friday and Saturday before Sunday’s race.