If Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) hopes to win the 2014 Tour de France, one of the riders he'll count on in a super-domestique role is 26-year-old Estonian Tanel Kangert. During Astana's 2013 Grand Tour campaign Kangert provided key support for Nibali in both the Giro d'Italia (won by Nibali with Kangert finishing 14th) as well as the Vuelta a Espana (2nd by Nibali with Kangert in 11th).
The core of Astana's 2014 Tour de France roster, including Kangert, have started their season in Argentina at the Tour de San Luis where their primary mission is to get in a block of hard racing in warm weather. Michele Scarponi currently is highest on GC for Astana in 23rd overall at 8:00, belying the bigger fish to fry further along in the season.
Kangert is coming into his own regarding Grand Tours. He's completed all four he's started and has progressively improved his GC result every time: 2011 Vuelta-64th, 2012 Giro-26th, 2013 Giro-14th and 2013 Vuelta-11th. On tap for 2014 is his Tour de France debut which is the primary goal of the Estonian's season.
"Right now I have the Tour de France in my program, a race I've never done before so obviously I want to do good there," Kangert told Cyclingnews following stage 5 at the Tour de San Luis. "I also have one little dream of my own - to do the Classics. It's my sixth year as a pro this year and I've never even participated in them. I look forward to the Ardennes Classics."
When asked to clarify if he had any predilection for Classics on the pave of Belgium and France, Kangert was quick to respond.
"Cobbles are a real man's race," he said with a laugh. "I have nothing to do with that."
A strong time trialer (a three-time Estonian champion against the clock) as well as a climber, the Estonian thus far has shown a strong predilection for stage racing in his career.
"I enjoy Grand Tours, but I think my personal favourites are week-long stage races where you have various profiles," said Kangert. "I like complete races where you have flat stages, mountains and time trials."
In 2013 Kangert carried his Giro form into the Tour de Suisse, where he finished 6th overall, and later place 9th in the Tour of Poland.
As far as consistency, 2013 was the best season yet for the Estonian. "When I look back to 2013 I think I had a good year," said Kangert. "Maybe not much for results, but I felt good all year. I had a good, level year but I think I peaked only one time. At the beginning of the Giro I felt strong, I did some good races later, also, but I never found that the same legs I had in the spring.
"But the thing I really missed last year was a victory (Kangert won the Estonian TT title and was part of Astana's winning TTT at the Vuelta, but didn't win a road race) but that's not what I rode for. In the beginning of the season I was a domestique for Vincenzo so I rode for him. We achieved what we were looking for."
One of the last races Kangert rode in 2013 was the Vuelta, a race in which he greatly admired the character of Nibali in his ultimate runner-up position to overall winner Chris Horner.
"When I saw how he raced on the second to last stage on the Angliru I was like 'chapeau to Vincenzo'," said Kangert. "Even now, thinking back to that day, he didn't lose this race because he was weaker. I think Horner was just a little bit stronger. He attacked Horner whenever he could - five, six times. The day before he said he would do everything he could do to win the race, but one man was just stronger. That day I saw that he's a real, real fighter.
"I think we all learned a lesson - never to underestimate someone. Of course he (Horner) was a surprise, but he said after the first week that he would like to go for the general classification, even win the race if it all went to plan - and he did."
Estonians are a rare breed in the upper echelons of professional cycling, with Kangert the only representative in the WorldTour ranks. The other prominent Estonian is Cofidis' Rein Taaramae, who happens to be from the same, small town in Estonia as Kangert and the two have known each other since kindergarten. Just one month apart in age, they both turned professional in the same year (2008) for French teams, albeit AG2R for Kangert and Cofidis for Taaramae.
"We still get along fine. We're not chatting to each other every day, but we still keep in contact of course. We are supporters of each other, we have a long history."
Part of that history is a familiar path for Estonian pro prospects - rising through the ranks on French amateur teams. A path also followed by former pro Jaan Kirsipuu, the first Estonian to win a stage in the Tour and an inspiration to a young Kangert.
"Teams are well-structured there and riders who have already been there a few years have the contacts so they can help the younger guys," said Kangert. "It has been a logical way, but now I think it would be helpful if we have our own Continental team because mentally it's very hard going abroad at 19 years old and not speaking a word of French, living on your own. Some guys get stronger mentally, but I think we still lose many talented riders who just can't cope being alone."