What a difference a year makes. When Vincenzo Nibali placed a low-key 20th at last season’s Tour of Oman, he did so labouring under the yoke of being the defending Tour de France champion and operating against the backdrop of Astana’s possible exclusion from the WorldTour.
Twelve months on, Nibali returned to Oman to claim final overall victory after racing with an effervescence unseen at this early juncture since at least 2012. Just as importantly, perhaps, there has been a lightness to the atmosphere around Nibali this week that contrasts favourably with the furrowed brows that seemed the default expression in the Astana camp for so much of 2015.
Ahead of Sunday’s final stage, as Nibali joined his Astana teammates for a pre-race coffee on the terrace of the Shakespeare and Company café, he looked to all the world like a man setting out on a relaxed club run as they joked and enjoyed the morning sunshine.
“I can see he’s a lot more tranquil and serene this year,” Nibali’s roommate Valerio Agnoli told Cyclingnews. “We’ve got a good working group around him, and it’s not just about the racing, we’re enjoying ourselves too.”
Nibali finished safely in the main peloton on Matrah Corniche on Sunday afternoon to seal final overall victory, 15 seconds clear of Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and 24 ahead of his Astana teammate Jakob Fuglsang, who rode so impressively in his service on Green Mountain on Friday.
“The most important work in these last two days was done by the team, and we’re really happy with because it shows we’ve all started the year very strongly,” Nibali said after descending from the podium.
The Tour of Oman has been a staple of Nibali’s programme for the past five years, but this was the first time that he had truly sparkled in the race since he won atop Green Mountain in 2012 and then placed second overall behind Peter Velits.
“A few years have gone by, a lot has changed and I’ve got a lot more experience now,” Nibali said. “And this time I raced more intelligently, with more cunning. I waited for the most important climb, Green Mountain, and even there I waited to make my attack until the finale. So in the end, we only needed to control the race for the last two days.”
Nibali’s low-key showings in the early part of the past two years generated their share of column inches – who can forget the furore that followed reports of Alexandre Vinokourov’s email of ‘encouragement’ in 2014? – and he acknowledged the importance of getting a win under his belt in February as a tangible confirmation of his off-season labours.
“Obviously it was very important for me to try to get a win straightaway,” he said. “It’s always nice to win early in the season and there are important races coming up in the weeks to come.”
Nibali’s next stage is at Tirreno-Adriatico, where he is seeking a third overall win following his triumphs in 2012 and 2013, while Milan-San Remo and Liège-Bastogne-Liège also figure prominently on the programme that leads to the centrepiece of his 2016 season, the Giro d’Italia. The return to the corsa rosa has added an urgency to his early-season work that was lacking in the past two years.
“Racing on Italian ground is extra motivation for him and this year he gets to race more in Italy,” said Fuglsang, part of the group of riders who trained with Nibali at Mount Teide last month and will accompany him at the Giro in May.
“I think also it is normal that after you win the Tour de France, the biggest race that there is to win, you maybe need a year to digest everything and settle back down. It’s not easy to find the same motivation when you have won the biggest race for a stage racer.”
The week Nibali placed second overall in Oman in 2012 was the first time that the whispers linking him with a transfer from Liquigas to Astana first appeared in print, and so it was only fitting that Sunday morning’s Gazzetta dello Sport reported the latest rumour regarding his destination for 2017.
According to Gazzetta, the first outfit to make enquiries about Nibali’s availability was a planned new team reportedly backed by Nasser Bin Hamad Al Khalifa, a member of the Bahraini royal family. With Lampre-Merida and Trek-Segafredo already in the running, and with Astana also reportedly keen to retain his services, the saga will run and run all the way to August.
“Of course I’ve seen what’s been written in the press here and there about it, but we’re here doing our work,” Astana manager Dimitri Fofonov told Cyclingnews as Nibali was feted on the podium. “We’re happy that Nibali is here and is winning, and that he’s found a bit of serenity.”
Fofonov has been installed as team manager in place of Giuseppe Martinelli this season, and he was in the team car with Stefano Zanini in Oman this week. He echoed Fuglsang’s thesis that the additional obligations of being the defending Tour champion had not helped Nibali’s cause in 2015.
“Vincenzo’s a rider who prefers to be more tranquillo and quiet – he prefers simply to train and to stay with his family,” Fofonov said. “But when you win a big race like the Tour de France, you find yourself dragged here and there for various obligations and you lose out a bit in your preparation.
“And then when you don’t win, you start to put pressure on yourself and the team feels it too. So that’s why it’s important to win here, because it shows to everyone that the leader is here, the team is here, and we’re all working well.”