"Sky will have an extra problem in 2014," is how Astana sports director Giuseppe Martinelli sums up one important part of the team's plans for 2014 - the Tour de France - and how the Kazakh squad will tackle cycling's blue riband race.
It's true Astana have often crossed swords with the British team in the past and they have produced some of the most memorable races of 2013 - against Chris Froome in Tirreno-Adriatico, for example. But as Martinelli tells Cyclingnews, next year when Vicenzo Nibali goes for the Tour de France, very probably as Froome's number one rival, Astana will aim to raise the bar even higher.
"Every year we want to improve and [team manager] Alexandre Vinokourov has already made some big changes, bringing in Vincenzo last year and Michele [Scarponi] this year. And there are good new young riders signed for 2014 like [Spanish talent Mikel] Landa and experienced rouleurs like [Lieuwe] Westra. So Alexandre has built the team up this far, and I think that next year, Sky will have another problem to deal with, and that's going to be Astana.
"We're going to have a very strong team for the Tour, and Vinokourov's aim is that the squad increase the physical and mental pressure on Sky."
The Tour route, he believes, will play in Nibali's favour. "It's a good route for Vincenzo, a lot more mountain stages and no team time trial where Sky would have had a bit of an advantage on us there."
"Just 50 kilometres of individual time trialling is fair enough, and even if Froome's got something of a margin there on Nibali, Vincenzo's worked very hard on the chronos, and I think next year he'll progress even more. It's in the mountains where we will make the biggest difference, though."
"The stage [in northern France] with pavé," Martinelli believes "is difficult for everybody not just Vincenzo. A puncture or something like that can make a huge difference."
"Every team is already working on their specific preparation for it, maybe planning to do some specific training races in Belgium. In some ways I think that stage will be the leitmotif of the entire race." It is, he agrees, where you can't win the Tour, but you can certainly lose it.
As for Nibali's specific race program, as he gears up on his first all out assault on the Tour since 2012, "We haven't talked about it, but we will when he has his first training camp of 2014, in Montecatini [in Italy] from November 18th," Martinelli says.
"Right now he's on holiday, but we will be making some changes to his program for sure in comparison to 2013, and that's when we'll make all the decisions."
As for Astana's other top names, Fabio Aru will, after a very promising first full professional season in which he showed steadily rising form during the Giro and finished fifth on the very difficult Tre Cime di Lavaredo stage, be "given his chance" in the Italian. According to Martinelli, Aru and Michele Scarponi will both start the race as protected riders.
Scarponi's huge experience will, Martinelli says, combine well with Aru's clear promise as a stage racer, but thanks to Scarponi's presence, Aru would race without the pressure that being sole leader would bring.
"Michele's big goal is to be in top form for the Tour, where he'll be working for Vincenzo, but at the same time, we can't forget he's won the Giro d'Italia already [in 2011] and he's been in the top positions" - fourth in 2010, 2012 and 2013 - "three times. So he'll do the Giro alongside Aru, and I think Fabio will be very motivated to be alongside Michele."
As for the Vuelta, yet another of Astana's promising riders, Tanel Kangert, will "maybe have his chance to lead there," said Martinelli. Kangert was one of Nibali's strongest lieutenants in the Giro, to the point where Nibali memorably once had to yell at him to stop working so hard on the front of the bunch, "and we aim to have him riding side by side with Vincenzo and Michele in the Tour. But then after working for Vincenzo in July, he may well have his own chance in the Vuelta."
One rider who will not be part of the Astana roster - according to Martinelli - is Andrey Kashechkin. The era when the 33-year-old took third overall in the Vuelta, back in 2006, appears to be long gone and Martinelli was particularly disappointed at Kashechkin's abandon during the Tour on stage three because of stomach problems.
"A rider has to finish a race absolutely spent and not quit like that," Martinelli said. "That was the last straw. I don't know where he's going next year, but he won't be with Astana."
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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