Fabio Aru and Vincenzo Nibali sat shoulder-to-shoulder at the Astana pre-Tour de France press conference on Friday afternoon with no apparent sign that their rivalry could explode over the next three weeks. It seems that the circumstances and events of recent weeks and months have eased the tension between the two Italians.
During the winter both were keen to establish themselves as Astana team leader and Nibali openly criticised his younger teammate in an interview with Gazzetta dello Sport. They have not raced together since then but now line up together for the Tour de France and then again in August in the Italian team for the hilly road race at the Rio Olympics. Races and results seem to have been placed before personal opinions and differences in character.
Nibali begins the 2016 Tour de France as recent winner of the Giro d’Italia and is happy to have the freedom to race without any major expectations on his shoulders. He appears certain to leave Astana after this season and go on to lead the new Bahrain Cycling team.
Aru is in another dimension with far heavier expectations on his shoulders. He wears race number 21 and is the designated team leader at Astana for the Tour de France. It is his big goal of the season but also his debut in the sport’s biggest race and represents a whole new world compared to winning the Vuelta a España or fighting for victory at the Giro d’Italia.
Aru talked of his Tour de France ambitions openly during the winter, seemingly shooting for the podium. However, his difficult season – caused by racing and training too hard at the start of the spring, according to team manager Alexander Vinokourov – means he has now significantly lowered his hopes for the next three weeks.
“The first goal here to gain experience,” Aru said firmly, to make sure the Italian media did not build their hopes of further Italian Grand Tour success too high.
“All of my teammates have told me that the Tour is a very complicated race but I know I can count on riders like Luis Leon Sanchez and Jakob Fuglsang and Vincenzo. I’ll be sure to listen to them throughout the race and I’m sure they’ll help me a lot. But to be honest I’m not able to make a prediction about what I can achieve at the moment.
“I know I’ve got to be careful in the opening days because the Tour is crazy, then I've got to learn during the first week and see what happens.”
Aru won a stage at the Critérium Dauphiné but cracked in the mountains and finished 45th overall.
“The Dauphiné was about preparing for the Tour de France, especially because there was a month to go to the start,” he argued.
“I think I did some good work during the race to stack up the kilometres after not racing for a six weeks. After the Dauphiné I went in to Sestrière for 10 days of altitude training. Now I think I feel pretty good. I’m convinced I’ve prepared well for the Tour.
"My goal is to try to do as well as possible. I don’t know my limits or my level at the moment but we're tranquillo because I’ve worked hard. We're also not under pressure as a team because Vincenzo won the Giro. That takes the pressure off me. I’m pretty sure that we can do well together even if it’s difficult to be specific before the start.”
Nibali stays relaxed
Nibali sat quietly as Aru answered questions, hiding his own emotions and opinions like a sphinx.
He last rode the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France in 2008 when he was he a promising young rider with Liquigas. Now he is 31 with a Tour de France victory on his palmares alongside two wins at the Giro and one at the Vuelta. The Sicilian has not raced since winning the Giro at the end of May but recently spent time in the Dolomites gradually ramping up his training for the Tour de France and the Olympics.
“I’ve come out of the Giro d’Italia feeling pretty good and I’ve still got some form. I’m in crescendo and perhaps going well but I know I could also pay for all the efforts of the Giro at some point,” Nibali warned.
“That’s why I’m going to take it day-by-day. It’s not easy to do the double and so a stage win is perhaps the best objective for me especially with the Olympics in August, which are also an important goal for me.”
If Aru stumbles or loses time in the first part of the Tour de France, then Nibali could be asked or forced to step up and take on a leadership role but he knows he will be up against riders who have specifically targeted and prepared for the Tour de France.
“A lot of riders here didn’t ride the Giro and so they’re fresher and stronger. People like Alberto Contador tried to do the double and it’s very hard. I know that too. I know I can’t be at my very best. But we’ll see how my legs feel. I’ve got to think of the Olympics too which is very hard and hilly.
“My approach to the Tour is to race carefree; it is Fabio who has prepared for the Tour. We’ve both got to get through the first week where the roads are tough, with lots of difficulties. There could be crashes but we can’t take too many risks. I know I’ve got to stay up front and fortunately we’ve got a strong team and so we’ve got to ride united. I hope to do something good, perhaps win a stage, but I also want to stay relaxed but will stay focused and be ready to help Fabio.”
Nibali appeared to feel almost sorry for Aru.
“It’s all new for Fabio… And we all know the Tour is not like the Giro or Vuelta,” he said. “I can remember when I debuted at the Tour. It’s not easy but having a big team helps you. If Fabio goes well on the climbs we can achieve something special.”