Vincenzo Nibali’s happiness (and the varied feelings of others)

It would be wrong to say that Vincenzo Nibali would have been happy at the bottom of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo climb at the end of stage 20. He was about to face 20km of increasingly difficult uphill cycling and the weather near the top was about as pleasant as an old man’s scrotum. It wasn’t just that it was snowing heavily. It also looked like the kind of wet snow that is extra keen to inflict its temperature upon you.

But happiness and unhappiness are odd, ephemeral things. You can play mental tricks with yourself to minimise or maximise them. No matter how bad it got, Vincenzo Nibali could always comfort himself with the knowledge that it was worse for everyone else. His performance in the cronoscalata had shown him that he had more strength than anyone. He could increase the pace and sooner or later everyone else would reach their limit. This is basically what he did, riding away for a spectacular and fully-deserved win which looked like this.

Nibali has, barring a crash on today’s stage, won the Giro d’Italia.

Cadel Evans’ unhappiness

Describing his approach to the finish, Nibali said:

“I knew the final couple of kilometers were hard, but I forgot how hard. After I started to see the distance markers with 1,800 meters to go, I thought they would never end.”

If it was like that for the victor, imagine how Cadel Evans must have felt. If the cronoscalata had left Nibali confident that he was more than equal to anything that might be thrown at him, it had basically advertised Evans’ vulnerability. He had Rigoberto Uran 10 seconds behind him on the general classification and the Colombian had a fair mind that he was in much better shape than his Australian quarry. Second place in a Grand Tour was up for grabs.

I rather suspect that Uran would have taken second anyway, but Evans’ troubles were compounded by a technical problem with 2km to go. He did seem to be pushing a very big gear, so I don’t think this is an excuse, but the mechanical problem may also have become a focal point for his general frustrations. Imagine it’s cold and the road’s vertical and the man who’s 10 seconds behind you overall is more than 10 seconds in front of you on the road. Now imagine you can’t change down a gear. What are you going to do to that bike?

Carlos Betancur’s unhappiness and happiness

Another battle playing out was that for the white jersey, which is worn by the best young rider. At the start of the day, Carlos Betancur was just two seconds behind Rafal Majka (who?). Where Betancur has combined a slew of podium places with the occasional bad day, Majka has done neither, preferring a faceless middle path.

This contrast between the two riders was nicely reflected in their respective fortunes on stage 20. Betancur describes how he ended up having to chase the lead group, even once they’d got onto the climb.

“I had a puncture, then my bike was broken, then my bike broke again, then I had to change the whole bike. But when you want to do well, there’s nothing that can stop you.”

What about another puncture, Carlos? Or a broken collarbone or the cancellation of the race or a nuclear strike? There’s always something that can stop you.

But on this occasion nothing did stop him. He caught the main group, rode past Majka and even had the strength to follow Nibali for a time when almost no-one else could. He finished fourth, narrowly missing out on yet another podium position. Assuming there are no nuclear strikes today, he thoroughly deserves to keep the white jersey he regained with this effort. In classic tradition, he celebrated his achievement by throwing a few snowballs.

Mark Cavendish’s happiness and unhappiness

Of course there was one other beneficiary of Cadel’s travails. Mark Cavendish retained his lead over Evans in the points competion. The bad news is that Nibali’s win meant he leapfrogged both of them. Doubtless an extra jersey was beneficial at the end of yesterday’s stage, but this is one competition that is still very much alive for the final stage. By my reckoning, Mark Cavendish needs to finish at least fifth in order to secure the maglia rosso passione (after three weeks, that’s starting to sound a bit better).

By the way

Domenico Pozzovivo lost 54 seconds yesterday. He doesn’t like the cold (although this performance was actually sufficient to move him back up to 10th place overall).