Coming from any other rider, Vincenzo Nibali’s declaration that he has no idea of the details of the Vuelta a España route would be greeted with a grain of salt, but the Astana man has some previous history in this regard.
After defending his red jersey atop Bola del Mundo on the penultimate day of the 2010 Vuelta, for instance, Nibali had to be reminded at his post-stage press conference that there was still the final leg to Madrid to come the following day.
Two years later, it was even reported that Nibali had spent part of the build-up to the Tour de France mistakenly believing that there was a team time trial on the parcours, yet he still had the wherewithal to finish on the podium in Paris.
"I don’t know the road book, just like in 2010. Not a bit, and I’m not worried about it,” Nibali told a press conference in Marbella ahead of the Vuelta. “I’m confident because I finished the Tour de France in good form and my feelings were good while I was training at Sestriere. Knowing the route is important, sure, but it's better to live day by day.”
Nibali was drafted into Astana’s Vuelta squad in the wake of a mixed Tour, where he finished in fourth place overall. After conceding all hopes of a repeat overall victory in the Pyrenees, the Sicilian recovered to solo to stage victory at La Toussuire in the final week, and were it not for an untimely puncture at the foot of Alpe d’Huez, he could even have competed for a podium spot.
“The Vuelta wasn’t on my programme initially, but together with the team, we decided to come here,” he said. “I had a lot of pressure at the Tour but here it’s a lot calmer.”
Nibali took second overall behind a surprising Chris Horner on his last Vuelta appearance two years ago, conceding the red jersey to the American on the penultimate stage up the Angliru. On that occasion, the Astana squad was devoted exclusively to Nibali, but this time around he shares the role of leader with Fabio Aru.
Second overall at the Giro d’Italia, Aru was held back from the Tour in order to prepare specifically for the Vuelta. Although Aru wears the number 21 as Astana’s apparent captain, he is aware that the addition of Nibali to the roster means that the hierarchy is a fluid one, at least for the time being.
“Having Vincenzo here is good because it makes us stronger. It's something that will work in our favour, it’s an advantage,” Aru said. “We’ve all prepared for a common goal and in the third week we'll see who’s better.”
The third man in Astana’s Vuelta strategy is Mikel Landa, who helped himself to two stage wins at the Giro and upstaged Aru for long spells in the high mountains. The Basque rider is set to leave the squad at the end of the current season and directeur sportif Giuseppe Martinelli told Cyclingnews during the week that Landa sets out from Marbella a notch below Aru and Nibali in the pecking order, a role he seems willing to accept, at least for now.
"We’ve come here with three chances, but they both have more experience,” Landa said of Aru and Landa. “I hope to stay close to them and keep learning from them. Finishing on the podium would be a dream but it will be very complicated with the list of favourites here.”
With the three podium finishers from the Tour – Chris Froome (Sky), Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) – on hand, the level of competition at this Vuelta could scarcely be higher, but the Astana squad, which also includes Dario Cataldo, Luis León Sánchez and Paolo Tiralongo, seems the strongest in the race.
“I think it’s the others who will have the problem,” León Sánchez said when asked about Astana’s surfeit of options.
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