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Alexandre Vinokourov and key Astana recruit, Vincenzo Nibali
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The confirmation that Bradley Wiggins will not line up alongside Chris Froome on Sky’s Tour de France squad may be the news of the day, but when Astana manager Giuseppe Martinelli opened the pages of Gazzetta dello Sport at his home near Brescia on Friday morning, his eye was drawn to a report detailing internal divisions within his own team.
According to the Italian newspaper, Vincenzo Nibali was issued with an official rebuke from general manager Alexandre Vinokourov following his low-key performances in the early part of the season.
Nibali is reported to have received the letter, signed by Vinokourov, between Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Tour de Romandie, and he was apparently informed that his results thus far in 2014 were not commensurate with his earnings.
The 2013 Giro d’Italia winner is targeting the Tour de France this season, but is without a victory to date. Nibali’s best performance of the year came shortly after receiving Vinokourov’s missive, when he finished 5th at Romandie, a race won by Chris Froome.
“I don’t know anything about it. It was news to me when I read it too. I don’t know what to tell you,” Martinelli told Cyclingnews when contacted by telephone.
Speaking to Velobike.it later on Friday, Nibali's agent Alex Carera said that all of Astana's riders - and not just Nibali - had received the same letter following the team's low-key start to the year. "It was normal to send out a communication asking for 100 percent from the riders," he said.
The Gazzetta article paints the letter as being indicative of a deeper malaise at Astana, however, and describes a team divided into two distinct camps – an Italian section headed up by Martinelli, and a Kazakh division under the control of directeur sportif Aleksander Shefer.
Indeed, during the Giro, Gazzetta reported that the Kazakh-Italian tensions were such that Fabio Aru’s surprise third place finish was needed to “save” Martinelli’s job, even though his current contract expires at the end of 2015.
“I think they’re picking up on a piece that was on Italian television yesterday, where they were talking about how two big riders like Nibali and Aru mightn’t be able to coexist on the same team. I think this story is following on from that, but I don’t know anything about the letter and all of that,” Martinelli said on Friday.
“In any case, from our side, there’s no problem. A great rider like Aru emerging is only good news for us, although he's not just burst on the scene like a meteor either – we’d brought him to the Giro to do well in the first place. I’ve already heard all the polemics about whether they can ride together. If people want to talk about it, that’s fine, but there is absolutely no problem having the two of them on the same team.”
While Aru was recording Astana’s most significant results of 2014 at the Giro – so far the team has won just five races – Nibali spent much of May training at altitude at Mount Teide under the stewardship of Paolo Slongo, his old coach from Liquigas who arrived at Astana this winter. “Paolo has told me that he’s going well physically and that’s an important reassurance for me,” Martinelli said.
The Critérium du Dauphiné, which begins on Sunday, will be Nibali’s first race since Romandie, and while Martinelli acknowledged that it was important for the Sicilian to ride well in a race that pits him against Froome and Alberto Contador, the emphasis is on his own personal numbers rather than the final results sheet.
Two years ago, of course, Nibali followed a worrying showing at the Dauphiné with third place at the Tour. However, 2012 season had already begun with a bang – Tirreno-Adriatico and podium finishes at Milan-San Remo and Liège-Bastogne-Liège – rather than a formal reprimand from his (then Liquigas) team, and there seems a greater sense of urgency about his Dauphiné this time around.
“He knows the Dauphiné is an important part of his Tour preparation but he also knows that often at the Dauphiné, not all of the Tour contenders are in top condition,” Martinelli said. “It’s important to be competitive there, but the main thing is to take another big step in building his condition for the Tour.”
Martinelli sounded an optimistic note, too, about Michele Scarponi’s chances of competing at the Tour in support of Nibali after a crash brought a premature end to his Giro. “That compromised everything but he’s back training again and the desire the ride the Tour is there.”
Asked about the Wiggins and Froome contretemps at Team Sky, meanwhile, Martinelli could only laugh in recognition of Dave Brailsford’s predicament. A decade ago, he was the manager at Saeco when Damiano Cunego emerged to usurp Gilberto Simoni’s position, and before that, he had been on the staff of a Carrera team split between Marco Pantani and Claudio Chiappucci.
“It’s something that’s happened to me in the past, having two strong riders and needing to make a choice. But it’s better to have that choice than to go to the Tour with no chance at all, you understand,” Martinelli said, adding: “To manage two important captains is difficult but maybe they’ve made this choice in order to have more calm around the team.”