Nibali plays it smart in Giro. The satisfaction of 2nd place.

A Giro win not in the cards this year.

Vincenzo Nibali may be called the snark but he’s not a stupid shark. There’s a brain mounted above the razor sharp teeth.

He proved that in last year’s Vuelta a Espana by riding a calculated and confident race, out-lasting Joaquin Rodriquez and masking agent Ezequiel Mosquera to win his first grand tour.

The Sicilian is not going to win this year’s Giro and he has accepted the reality: Alberto Contador is simply on another level, unbeatable and unstoppable. Champions as famous as Lance Armstrong, Ivan Basso. Cadel Evans and Andy Schleck know the painful feeling all too well.

“If I can finish second behind the best guy in the race, I’d be satisfied. It means that only Contador will have beaten me,” said Nibali.

This strikes us as smart and almost un-Italian. He’s cutting his losses, reframing the goal and riding within himself instead of riding with passionate desperation, launching hopeless attacks and falling further down the GC. With six stages left before the finish in Milan, he’s aiming to overtake Scarponi for the second step of the podium.

While it’s not what he dreamed of when he was training hard on Mount Etna, it’s still progress, an upward progression. Third last year, maybe second this year. Such is the dominance of Contador in grand tours — it’s looking like 6 wins in 7 attempts — that taking second place is a kind of triumph. Mr. Almost Pink.

Besides, Nibali also knows he could still end up the winner of the Giro. If the Court for Arbitration in Sport rules against Contador in June, the UCI may decide to strip the maglia rosa off his chest. It’s not quite the thrill of an outright win, but it’s pink and your name goes in the record book.

As Clint Eastwood said long ago in Magnum Force: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Riders who win grand tours always know exactly what they have left in the tank. They have a keen understanding of physical limitations.

Vincenzo Nibali knows he has enough gas for second and not a drop more.

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