Copeland backs Nibali to win 2018 Tour de France

Bahrain-Merida team manager Brent Copeland believes that Vincenzo Nibali can wear yellow again in Paris when he rides this year's Tour de France.

After a disappointing showing in 2017, Bahrain-Merida are throwing everything at the French Grand Tour, with 2014 champion Nibali returning after a two-year absence. It will be Nibali's first real assault on the Tour's general classification since he finished fourth in 2015.

Copeland has confidence in the Italian, who finished third at the Giro d'Italia and second at the Vuelta a Espana last season.

"Vincenzo is a champion who when he sets his target on a race, he goes there to win. That's his main objective," Copeland told Cyclingnews.

"He's a rider who has finished on the podium 10 times in the last years. He's an incredibly consistent rider and I think that his chances of winning the Tour de France are good. We'll support him and his training staff with everything they need to get to the Tour in the best possible shape."

Sending Nibali to the Tour has been on the cards for 2018 since the start of last season. However, with the Giro d'Italia going through his native Sicily once again, the 33-year-old Nibali was tempted to ride his home Grand Tour yet again. Team priorities prevailed in the end, with the Vuelta a Espana featuring on Nibali's calendar for the second year running as a build-up to a tilt at the rainbow jersey in Innsbruck, Austria.

"It was a decision from the team and the main partners. Vincenzo asked if he could do the Giro in the first year because it went through Sicily. We were okay with that and we asked him to do the Tour de France in the second year if he did the Giro in the first," explained Copeland. "It wasn't an easy decision because the Giro goes through Sicily again, and being Italian means he loves the Giro."

This year's Grande Boucle offers up a number of pitfalls for any GC hopeful, particularly in the first week where the riders must face crosswinds, a team time trial, punchy climbs and more than 20 kilometres of cobbles.

Copeland picks out the Mur de Bretagne, where Nibali lost time in 2015, as a particular hurdle for the Italian. The cobbles are a threat too but Nibali showed that he could master them on the way to victory in 2014, finishing just 19 seconds down on stage winner Lars Boom.

"He likes the cobbles. He's one of the world's best bike handlers so hopefully the cobbled stage goes well this year," said Copeland.

"He trusts in the mechanics. He speaks a lot to Haussler and Colbrelli and those that have the experience. He's very interested in the technology and the bike. He loves learning about it. He's always studying about the different bearings and weights, he's hugely passionate. Sometimes he knows more than some of the mechanics."

Nibali will start his 2018 campaign at the Vuelta a San Juan later this month.

Getting established

The 2018 season is the second for Bahrain-Merida, who made their race debut at last year's Tour Down Under.

There was plenty of experience within the team, but it still took time for the group to gel together. A series of injuries to key riders such as Ion Izagirre, Ramunas Navardauskas, Heinrich Haussler and Kanstantsin Siutsou did not help. The Tour de France proved a particular disappointment after the team lost Izagirre early on but Bahrain-Merida closed out the year with 13 wins and two Grand Tour podium spots thanks to Nibali.

With most riders on two-year contracts, Copeland could just six changes. Mark Padun was brought in as part of a drive to bring down the average age of the team, and former under-23 world champion Matej Mohoric was also snapped up. Gorka Izagirre reconnects with his brother Ion, who was already at the team last year, to strengthen options in one-week races. Kristian Koren shores up the Classics squad, which Copeland is hoping to strengthen again in 2019, while Domenico Pozzovivo joins as both Grand Tour leader and support for Nibali.

"We wanted to build a team around another GC rider to cover the second and third activity GC and that's why we brought on Pozzovivo," Copeland told Cyclingnews.

"I've been very impressed with his professionalism. We did a training camp in Treviso after Lombardy and at six in the morning, he's on his bike riding an hour and a half before we started. He's super professional in everything that he does."

Copeland has kept a mountain biker on the roster too with Hermann Pernsteiner replacing Ondrej Cink in the line-up. Cink had an impressive debut on the road, but never really fell for road cycling and has returned to mountain biking for the 2018 season. Copeland still has faith that they can convert an off-roader into a top-notch roadie with the right circumstances.

"We've always believed in a mountain biker being good on the road. We tried out Ondrej Cink last year, who was fantastic and a huge talent. If he fell in love with road racing and wanted to continue with it then I believe that he would have been one of the world's best cyclists," explained Copeland. "There are a lot of factors that you need to look at to bring a mountain biker to the road."

Copeland plays his cards close to his chest on what exactly he expects from his team in 2018, but the Grand Tours play a central role. A step forward in performance from Colbrelli in the Classics is also a goal, with Haussler and Koren for back-up.

The Tour Down Under will mark the beginning of their season once again with Pozzovivo and the Izagirre brothers leading the line in Adelaide.

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