Vincenzo Nibali is not Gianni Moscon.
Which raises the question as to why Nibali is riding the Tour of Flanders this weekend. Moscon likes cobblestones (and racist remarks and pushing other riders over. He likes mud and rain and crosswinds and slippery, dangerous stones.
Nibali is a skinny GC star who has won all three grand tours and the very recent Milan-San Remo. He’s versatile, a gifted bike handler, an all-rounder in a climber’s body — but the Bahrain-Merida star is nobody’s idea of a classics rider or a heavyweight hard-man built for the cobblestones.
He’s certainly not a favorite for Flanders and is a dark horse only in that wildly speculative media way that encourages far-fetched scenarios.
It’s worth revisiting the commentary from stage 5 of Le Grand Shindig and those cobblestones between Ypres and Arenberg Porte de Hainult. That’s where Nibali dominated his GC rivals.
“Nibali took the stage by the scruff of its slippery neck and attacked the cobbles with a gusto that was a shock to everyone.” — Cyclingweekly
“The seven sectors of pavé felt like fresh circles of Hell for the majority of the overall contenders, but Nibali avoided a place among the damned, negotiating the cobbles with considerable confidence.” — Cyclingnews
Summing up Nibali’s third place, a performance that largely cemented his overall victory, Velonews shoveled on the poetry. “In that one stage, Nibali would take more gains against his most important rivals than he would in the looming mountains or time trials. It would take Nibali two more weeks to eventually win the yellow jersey, but he set the tone, and built a comfortable lead that dark day in northern France. For the remainder of the Tour, Nibali was like a cat playing with mice.”
The point being, does Nibali need the full experience again of riding the cobblestones at race speed in the Tour of Flanders? Critics are quick to point out that the Belgian stones are nowhere near as sharp, uneven and dangerous as the French variety that the peloton will encounter for 21.7 kilometers, a mini Paris-Roubaix throw into the Tour.
Not everyone believes that Flanders is ideal preparation for the cobblestone stage from Arras to Roubaix. “Racing [here] has nothing to do with Roubaix, with the cobbles in the Tour. It’s totally different,” said Sky sports director Servais Knaven. “In my eyes, it’s not necessary. [The cobbles here are] nothing to do with the stage. Only thing is, the way of racing, the nervousness, and everything, that’s what you can get a feel for, but I think you also have that in Paris-Nice or in any race. That’s why our GC riders are not here.”
That list of absent GC riders would include the reigning Tour de France champion Chris Froome of Team Sky. It’s worth remembering that he crashed twice and abandoned the Tour on that ugly day over the cobblestones back in 2014. We can certainly see why he’s not keen on that kind of painful abuse — he has UCI lawyers for that.
We’re just wondering if Nibali needs the tune-up.