Vincenzo Nibali says that with Bahrain-Merida's new signings he will have a stronger team behind him when he targets the general classification at next year's Tour de France. The WorldTour team has added Domenico Pozzovivo and Gorka Izagirre, who joins his brother Ion on the roster.
Nibali is set to return to the French Grand Tour in 2018 after skipping the race this season in favour of his home race, the Giro d'Italia. The Italian played his cards close to his chest when pressed on his chances of taking yellow for the second time, but believes that he has a better backing to help him in his ambitions.
"I have a good team for the new season and we are training together now. I feel like I've got more support with this team now with the new riders," he told Cyclingnews in a combination of English and Italian. "It is a good opportunity to win the Tour and that is why I am going to it and I will go there to do my best."
With its tough opening week that includes cobbles, several punchy finishes, and then a heavy concentration of high mountain stages, Nibali believes that next year's Tour de France route has a good resemblance to the one he claimed victory on in 2014.
The 33-year-old completed the set of Grand Tour victories when he won the Tour de France three years ago. It was a dominant ride from the Italian after the earlier abandons of defending champion Chris Froome and Alberto Contador. Nibali points to stage 17 from Bagnères-de-Luchon to Saint-Lary-Soulan as a key difference next year; there is also a team time trial to negotiate, but the former winner gives the 2018 route has been given the thumbs up.
"I think that it is a similar course apart from the 65-kilometre stage with three climbs in it. That is a very different stage. Besides that, I think that it is quite similar," Nibali told Cyclingnews at Bahrain-Merida’s training camp on the island of Hvar in Croatia. "I still have to have a see the route closely and from the first look of the route, I like it. It looks like a climber's route but I still need to go and take a look at the Roubaix stage route and find out about it step by step. I will do some recon of the route in the next months."
As well as confirming his presence at the Tour de France, Nibali’s team manager Brent Copeland also said that he would also return to the Vuelta a España as he gears up for a tilt at the World Championships. Nibali will start his season in Argentina once again at the Vuelta a San Juan, with the Ardennes a big target for him in April. Milan-San Remo could yet be on his programme, while the team is yet to decide if he will ride Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico.
Nibali last raced at Il Lombardia at the beginning of October. During his off-season, he went to Taiwan and won the KOM challenge, before returning home to have a plate removed from collarbone which had been inserted after his crash at the Rio Olympics.
"It's nice now. It's lighter," he joked, lifting up his arm. "After Taiwan, I came back to Lugano. After two days, I had an operation to remove the collarbone plate. After 10 days, I was able to start with my bike again. The first time was with the mountain bike, just a regular ride with Domenico Pozzovivo and after with a normal bike on the road.
"I had an inflammation and when I moved my shoulder the plate would stick out. When I slept, I would have some pain in my neck. The biggest problem was with sleeping because when I slept on my side it would poke me in the neck and it was uncomfortable and the posture was out of place because you have this thing. You cannot keep your posture straight."
Froome and the Vuelta a Espana
Nibali is hoping to add a fifth Grand Tour title to his palmares next July but he could achieve that before he even reaches France. It was announced earlier this week that Froome was under investigation after a urine sample he gave during the Vuelta had more than twice the permitted level of salbutamol. If the UCI chose to hand Froome a suspension, the overall title would go to Nibali.
Nibali was initially quoted by the Italian press questioning Froome's use of the substance, although he later claimed that the report was incorrect. With a day more to consider his position, Nibali was circumspect in his response, but he still had difficulty in reconciling the situation.
"I think that Sky is one of the best teams in the world and they are a team that always apply the rules 100 per cent. I find it difficult that Chris has gone over such a limit of what is allowed and it is difficult to understand and it is difficult to accept this," he said. "It was a spectacular race for everyone, for the fans and everyone that I rode against. What happened has maybe put a bit of a cloud over things now but that doesn't change the spectacle that was put on at the Vuelta."
Nibali finished second at the Vuelta a Espana in September just over two minutes behind Froome with Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) taking third place. Nibali would replace Froome as champion if he was suspended, but the Italian says it is hard to know how he'll feel about taking it until such time as it happens, if it happens.
"It has never happened to me before and I don't know what the emotions will be like. All I know is that I gave everything to be on the top step," he told Cyclingnews. "I was on the podium, standing on the second step, and if the victory is given to me those emotions will never be the same. It will never be known what it is like to stand on the top step in this Vuelta a Espana.
"I'm not interested in pushing for this kind of victory or asking for it. It is not in my interest at all. I believe in the rules and regulations, and I believe that the authorities will do what they have to do and whatever comes of it comes of it, but those emotions will never be felt."
Feeling the loss of Scarponi
There was a lot for Nibali to celebrate this season with his 50th career victory when he won his second Il Lombardia, and he was one of only two riders to make the podium in two Grand Tours – the other being Froome. However, it was also a tough year for Nibali as he had to come to terms with the loss of his good friend and former teammate Michele Scarponi. The 37-year-old was killed when he was hit by a car while out training after the Tour of the Alps in April.
Nibali and Scarponi raced together at Astana for three seasons before the former moved to Bahrain-Merida for the 2017 season. Scarponi had been due to lead Astana at the Giro d'Italia after Fabio Aru was forced to pull out due to an injury. In the end, the team rode with just eight riders instead of the usual nine. Still visibly emotional talking about his friend, Nibali said that it was difficult to race after Scarponi's death.
"It's a difficult question to answer because I was so close to Michele and we had such a good friendship," Nibali said about racing at the Giro d'Italia. "Being in different teams maybe helped me a little bit. If we had been in the same team then it might have been harder but it was still not an easy situation to be in. I still feel the loss of Michele. We used to exchange messages every two or three days and even though we separated teams I really felt his loss.
"He left a hole and he left a lot of beautiful things in cycling."