Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) is just one week away from winning the biggest race of his career, the Giro d'Italia. After placing third in the Tour de France last year and winning the 2010 Vuelta a España, his home Grand Tour is within reach.
On the second of two rest days today in Valloire, France, he said, "There's still a hard week ahead... You have to stay alert and defend yourself, and if there's a chance, I'll try to gain more time on my rivals."
The Giro d'Italia raced into France yesterday to climb Galibier. Tomorrow, it heads out with the Sicilian firmly in the leader's pink jersey.
Unlike Sky's Bradley Wiggins, who seemed stressed or uncomfortable at times in his yellow jersey at last year's Tour de France, Nibali appears comfortable. He waits patient each day with journalists asking questions at the finish line, in the podium area and in the leader's press conference. He laughs and jokes, which may be due to his southern charm and his healthy lead.
Nibali leads Aussie Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) by 1-26 minutes. The two are staying in the same Pulka Hotel just up the road from Valloire and are keeping a close eye on each other. Evans, at 36 years old and the 2011 Tour title in his pocket, has the experience to upset Nibali.
"He has a lot of experience," Nibali added. "He knows these races well, and we know him well. He's a World Champion, a Tour champion. He has a lot of wins in his palmarès."
They face three serious tests and many unmarked traps before the 96th Giro d'Italia concludes in Brescia. On Thursday, the race begins its final mountain block with an uphill time trial to Polsa and stages to Val Martello and Tre Cime di Lavaredo.
Vincenzo Nibali: Relaxed on rest day
The climb up the valley past the German-speaking Martello village on Friday is a first for the Giro d'Italia. To get there, the riders must cover the Gavia and Stelvio passes. It precedes a stage to Tre Cime di Lavaredo, a holy land thanks to its cycling history and place under the distinctive Dolomite peaks.
Tre Cime's debut in 1967 was annulled due to snow and overzealous tifosi. Eddy Merckx used it as a springboard to his first Grand Tour win in 1968. Its infrequent use, only six appearances, adds to its charm.
"I raced there in 2007, when Danilo Di Luca won. The last three kilometres are very hard on their own, but you also have to consider before we race Costalunga, San Pellegrino and Giau."
Nibali took the pink jersey last week after the Saltara time trial, won by Alex Dowsett (Movistar). He appears comfortable in the jersey with rivals Brad Wiggins and Ryder Hesjedal abandoning and strong performance in the mountain stages, Jafferau and Galibier, this week.
The Sicilian or 'The Shark' must be patient and vigilant to win the biggest race of his career. He has to survive the mountains, deal with Evans and rivals like Rigoberto Urán (Sky) in third place, and overcome any surprises that often seem commonplace in the Giro d'Italia.
Giro d'Italia 2013: Previews and race info
Giro d'Italia 2013: Coverage index
Giro d'Italia 2013: British TV schedule
Giro 2013: 10 things you need to know
Giro d'Italia 2013: The Big Preview
Giro d'Italia 2013: Stage reports
Stage 15: Visconti wins Galibier stage
Stage 14: Santambrogio wins and Nibali strengthens lead
Stage 13: Cavendish takes his fourth stage win of 2013 Giro
Stage 12: Cavendish takes 100th win as Wiggins' Giro bid faltrs
Stage 11: Navardauskas wins as favourites enjoy day off
Stage 10: Uran wins as Wiggins and Hesjedal lose time
Stage nine: Belkov takes solo win as Wiggins put under pressure
Stage eight: Dowsett wins as Nibali takes race lead
Stage seven: Wiggins crashes as Hansen wins
Stage six: Cavendish wins stage six of Giro
Stage five: Degenkolb avoids crash to take win
Stage four: Battaglin sprints to first Giro stage win
Stage three: Paolini takes charge
Stage two: Sky wins team time trial
Stage one: Cavendish wins opener
Giro d'Italia 2013: Photo galleries
Photos by Graham Watson
Stage 15 gallery
Stage 14 gallery
Stage 13 gallery
Stage 12 gallery
Stage 11 gallery
Stage 10 gallery
Stage nine gallery
Stage eight gallery
Stage seven gallery
Stage six gallery
Stage five gallery
Stage four gallery
Stage three gallery
Stage two gallery
Stage one gallery
Team presentation gallery
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