Vincenzo Nibali has spent the week with his new Astana teammates at the Kazkhstani team's first get-together of the winter in Tuscany. Nibali celebrated his 28th birthday with his new teammates as he prepares for his first season as the team's high-profile team leader.
In this exclusive interview, the Sicilian talks about the reasons he left Liquigas after eight years, why he joined Astana and what he thinks about team manager Alexandre Vinokourov.
Nibali finished third behind Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome at the Tour de France and was the only rider to try and break Team Sky's dominance of the race. He reveals he is looking forward to taking on Wiggins on home turf at the 2013 Giro d'Italia and warns Wiggins that the steep gradients of the Giro climbs will change everything in their battle for the maglia rosa.
Nibali also talks about Lance Armstrong, insisting he stills considers the disgraced Texan the seven-time winner of the Tour de France.
Cyclingnews: How did things go at the Astana get-together this week?
Nibali: It was good. We did all the things we need to do to get ready for the new season: bike measurements, clothing, medical check-ups, meetings and things like that. Everything went well and it feels like the start of a new adventure.
CN: Astana is a Kazakhstan team but there's a strong Italian part to the team, including the riders you've brought with you: Valerio Agnoli and Alessandro Vanotti. There's also directeur sportif Giuseppe Martinelli and you've brought your personal soigneur Michele Pallini.
VN: There's a big Italian part of the team of both riders and staff. That helps us work well together and is very important but it won’t be a problem either. There doesn't seem to be a big difference between Liquigas and Astana, they're both very well organised teams.
CN: There were photos of you published in some kind of fancy dress. What was going on?
VN: It was our baptism in the team. At Astana they do it to all the new riders, this time it was my turn along with Fuglsang and the new young riders who have joined the team. We all had to dress up. Every team does something like that. Sometimes it's just a dinner and a few drinks but it's about getting to know each other and becoming friends. It was a laugh.
CN: Why did you decide to join Astana rather than another team? Was it the best offer?
VN: I had a lot of good offers. The offer from Liquigas was very close in economic terms to that of Astana. However the idea of starting a new adventure really attracted me and so did the idea of having a team all for me and being the sole team leader.
CN: You turned 28 during the Astana camp, so this contract is probably the most important of your career. Do you agree?
VN: For sure. You have to make important choices during your career. Cycling is becoming more and more international. The Liquigas team helped me develop as a rider but the Liquigas team has become the Cannondale team and it's partly American. It's not the same team. That's another reason why I opted for Astana.
CN: What's it like to have Alexandre Vinokourov as a team manager?
VN: Good. During the get-together Vino welcomed me to the team and explained his new role as team manager. He promised to be very supportive and not only sit behind a desk. He said he'd be supportive when we win but also when we don’t win. Of course he's the boss and is in charge.
CN: Vinokourov is caught up in the Dr. Ferrari investigation and is being investigated by the UCI about suspicions he bought off Aleksandr Kolobnev to win Liege-Bastogne-Liege. What do you think about that?
VN: I can only really speak about the team. Everything seems to work well and Vinokourov is giving his all to make sure Astana is a great team and competitive in every race it competes in. We'll see what happens with the investigation but I don’t think it's right for me to comment or make a judgment. I wouldn't know what to say.
A good 2012 season and a battle with Wiggins
Nibali had an impressive 2012 season. He won Tirreno-Adriatico, finished third at Milan-San Remo after going on the attack with Simon Gerrans and Fabian Cancellara and was second at Liege-Bastogne-Liege after being caught in the final kilometre by Maxim Iglinsky.
CN: You must be satisfied with your season.
VN: I had some great results and I think it was a very good season. Losing at Liege-Bastogne-Liege was a difficult defeat to take but I'm very happy with my season. I just hope to be just as good next year.
CN: in an interview with Gazzetta dello Sport, your new directeur sportif Giuseppe Martinelli said you need to make some minor changes to become a great rider. Is he right?
VN: Martinelli is right and perhaps I made a few mistakes in the way I raced in 2012. But when you feel good, it's right you go for it and I went on the attack and tried to win. Things could have gone better if I'd been a little bit luckier. That's the way I see it.
CN: You were arguably the only rider who really tried to take on Team Sky and Wiggins at the Tour de France.
VN: I've always liked stage races and I think the Tour de France was a great race this year. I hope to improve on my third place overall in the future. I tried to beat Wiggins but it was virtually impossible. But that didn’t stop me trying.
It was hard for me this year because the time trials really suited Wiggins and he was able to gain a lot of time on me. I tried to attack him a few times but it wasn't easy to pull back all the time.
CN: What do you think of Wiggins?
VN: I think he's a good guy. He races well. He won everything he wanted to win this year and shows he's got class. He'll be a big rival next year and I hope to beat him.
CN: It looks like you'll clash at the Giro d'Italia. You'll have a home advantage. Can you win?
VN: It'll be difficult but we'll see what happens. It'll be a good fight, that's for sure. The climbs at the Tour de France are longer, while the climbers at the Giro d'Italia are harder and more difficult. That changes everything….
The time trial is long and difficult to get right but there's a lot mountains too. I haven't studied all the details yet but the Giro d'Italia is my big goal of the season.
CN: Will you also ride the Tour de France or opt for he Vuelta?
VN: I'll have a heavy programme of racing but we haven't decide my full programme yet. I'm Italian and so the Giro is a big goal for me. It's always difficult for me to miss the Giro. It's my home race.
Clarification on Armstrong and on doping
Nibali's comments to Gazzetta dello Sport about Lance Armstrong surprised many. He seemed to defend the Texan by saying: "For me Lance will always be the one who has won the Tour de France seven times."
When asked about his comments, Nibali tells Cyclingnews that he consider Armstrong the winner of seven Tours because he won them on the road.
CN: Do you regret what you said about Armstrong?
VN: No. My point was that Lance won those tours on the road, just as Contador won the 2010 Giro d'Italia and then was disqualified afterwards.
If the UCI take the Tours away afterwards, that's another matter. I don’t remember who finished second and how can we say who is really winner of those Tours. My memory of those races is that Lance won them. That's all I was trying to say.
CN: But it wasn't a very clear message against doping, considering everything that has happened in recent weeks.
VN: Some journalists misunderstood what I was trying to say and have forgotten what I've said about doping in the last few years. I've always taken a stand when things happened. I've said that the riders who cheat have to be kicked out of the sport.
I struggle to understand everything that has gone on about Lance recently because he retired several years ago but his Tours have only been taken away now. They should have got stopped him years ago, not after five or six years. That's the point I'm trying to make.