Valerio Agnoli’s dedication to Vincenzo Nibali’s cause was illustrated by the scene atop the Tre Cime di Lavaredo on the penultimate day of last year’s Giro d’Italia, when his Astana leader sealed overall victory by punching his way clear on the snow-banked final climb.
On crossing the finish line some minutes later, Agnoli swung over to the side of the road by himself, leant over his handlebars and wept openly. When a television reporter drew close and asked if the tears had been caused by struggling through the frigid conditions and spitting snow on the climb, Agnoli blinked at him incredulously. “No, these are tears of emotion,” he said, his voice wavering. “I'm just so happy for Vincenzo. I'm ultra-happy for Vincenzo.”
Having followed his leader from Liquigas to Astana ahead of last season, Agnoli was Nibali’s bodyguard in the peloton during the Giro’s opening week and, along with Tanel Kangert, ended up playing a more important part in the mountains than perhaps had been anticipated, as illness limited the contributions of others on the team.
It was something of a surprise, therefore, when it emerged that Agnoli may not reprise the role at this year’s Tour de France, where Nibali will challenge Chris Froome for the maillot jaune. The Astana squad has assigned Agnoli to ride the Giro d’Italia in support of Michele Scarponi, who leads in Nibali's absence. This week’s Tour of Oman apart, Agnoli will ride a largely separate programme to Nibali in the opening half of the season, and his participation in the Tour is in doubt.
The account of their “separation” was carried under the heading “Agnoli dumped – ‘Vincenzo, why?’” when Agnoli spoke to BiciSport at January’s Tour Down Under. “The team separated us and he didn’t lift a finger,” Agnoli told the magazine then, although both he and Nibali were quick to make light of the story on Twitter once it appeared in print.
“That same night, I spoke to Vincenzo on Skype and we just laughed about it,” Agnoli told Cyclingnews at the Tour of Qatar last week. “It was a little parenthesis that was maybe misunderstood by some journalists but everything is ok. I mean, just yesterday evening we were tweeting and joking, which shows that between me and him, the links are strong.”
As Agnoli points out, his relationship with Nibali goes beyond cycling – he introduced Nibali to his wife, Rachele. “They aren’t just sporting ties with Vincenzo, it’s a fraternal bond that I have with him,” said Agnoli, who confirmed that it was a decision of team management to send him to the Giro in the service of Scarponi rather than shadow Nibali all year long.
“This year the team asked me to try and get some results for myself,” he said. “They’ve asked to stay close to Scarponi at the Giro, and then after that they’ll decide whether or not to have me do the Tour de France. I would like to do the Tour, it’s my dream to be there with Vincenzo, but I’ll have to show to the team that I’m going well. Let’s hope I can do that.”
Agnoli’s early-season programme will take him to the Volta a Catalunya and the Giro del Trentino – “I’ll be looking for opportunities to pick up the results the team has asked of me,” he said – before he lines up at the Giro in support of Scarponi and Fabio Aru.
“This year the Giro d’Italia starts off quite hard, so you’ll have to be attentive from the opening stage,” he said. “But then, there’s never an easy grand tour. Every day has its own pitfalls and difficulties.”
Agnoli is aware, however, that his reputation is founded primarily on his work in Nibali’s service, and he makes no secret of his desire to ride alongside the Sicilian at the Tour de France in July.
“When you ride in support of anyone, it’s special, but when it’s someone you have such a strong bond with, it’s even more beautiful to see your friend succeed. Last year’s Giro was very important for me, and I was overcome to see Vincenzo win it,” Agnoli said, adding: “Although it wasn’t achieved just with Valerio Agnoli, but with all the lads.”