Vinokourov denies he told Nibali to find a new team next year

Astana manager says his team leader will target the Vuelta a Espana in August

Astana manager Alexander Vinokourov came out in support of embattled team leader Vincenzo Nibali on Thursday, saying he and the team have “full confidence” in the defending Tour de France champion.

Vinokourov’s statement came in response to a report in the Spanish newspaper AS, which claimed he had told Nibali to look for a new team for 2016 even though the three-time Grand Tour winner has a contract in place until the end of next year. In the statement released Thursday evening, Astana emphatically denied the rumour.

“There has never been a question that Vincenzo Nibali will leave the team at the end of the season,” Vinokourov said. “Vincenzo is doing very well in the team."

Nibali underwent blood tests on Thursday morning ahead of stage 12 in the hope of getting to the bottom of his lackluster performance.

The 2014 champion has had a sorry time of it so far and finds himself almost eight minutes down on yellow jersey Chris Froome, his title defence in tatters. He has endured a steady leakage of time since the start, and although the opening portion of the race was meant to suit him best of the Fab Four, he came out of it worst of them all at more than two minutes back.

In the Pyrenees he hasn’t fared any better, losing a devastating four minutes on the first summit finish at La Pierre-Saint-Martin and even dropping a minute late during stage 11 on Wednesday. During Thursday's 12th stage, he finished with the yellow jersey group and even attacked Froome on the final climb.

AS reported that the performance has not gone down at all well with Vinokourov, who the newspaper quoted as saying Nibali’s first week was a “catastrophe.”

“Vincenzo is expensive, we want more from him,” Vinokourov told the newspaper, referring to Nibali’s four million euros annual salary.

At La Pierre-Saint-Martin, Vinokourov went as far as to change the team's leadership, saying, “This day was a catastrophe. Nibali couldn’t even keep the pace with Fuglsang, which I had expected him to. We gave the green light to Jakob to go ahead in the classification. Vincenzo needs a good mechanic because something is broken in his head.”

New leader Fuglsang fell away on the Col du Tourmalet on Wednesday and lost quarter of an hour, however, meaning that stage wins are now the best thing Vinokourov can hope for during this Tour de France.

In his comments released by the team Thursday night, Vinokourov admitted he was not happy with Nibali’s performance so far, but he was standing by his leader and looking toward the Vuelta a Espana in August.

"Of course I am not happy when we don't win, as is the case with all team general managers,” Vinokourov said. “But I merely think that Vincenzo is not riding at his best level in this Tour. Nibali has a potential that is much better than his current place in general classification.

"We are going to do medical tests to determine the reason for his performance, and we also wish to see him race in the Vuelta a España this season to achieve a Grand Tour victory. There is no problem between him and the Team, and we have full confidence in him, contrary to what is being reported in the press."

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