The Estonian champion’s jersey has been a familiar sight on the front end of the peloton at the Giro d’Italia over the past week, with Tanel Kangert playing a vital supporting role in the defence of the maglia rosa of his leader Vincenzo Nibali.
After making his professional debut at Ag2r-La Mondiale in 2008, Kangert dropped back to the amateur ranks in 2010 before he was picked up by Astana the following year. His second coming as a professional has been rather more successful, and at this Giro, the 26-year-old’s stock has risen still further.
While a number of Nibali’s Astana teammates have struggled with illness on the Giro, Kangert has been his most reliable and prominent gregario. The Estonian shepherded his leader much of the way up to Galibier on Sunday, and has also had the wherewithal to help himself to 12th place on general classification as the race enters its endgame.
“I wouldn’t say I’m the most important guy or anything, it’s just that people don’t get to see a lot of the work that the other guys do,” Kangert told Cyclingnews. “We’ve got [Dmitriy] Gruzdev and [Andrey] Zeits who’ve been pulling every day for ten days but by the time the TV coverage starts, they have finished their jobs, so people don’t get to appreciate what they do.”
When Nibali joined Astana from Liquigas last winter, the expectation was that he would be flanked in the high mountains by Fredrik Kessiakoff and fellow Sicilian Paolo Tiralongo, but a combination of factors means that neither man has been able to serve as his last man on the climbs.
“In a three-week race you always have some minor health problems. It’s impossible to do the three weeks without any problems, I think,” Kangert said. “But a few guys are coming back from illness now and getting stronger every day. I think Tiralongo’s in pretty good shape now and we have a united team and everybody’s at their best.”
Some eyebrows were raised when Kangert clipped off the front and took second place behind Benat Intxausti on stage 16 to Ivrea, but in his post-race press conference, Nibali nipped the nascent polemica in the bud by confirming that Kangert had been following team orders.
Amid a flurry of attacking in the pink jersey group on the run-in to Ivrea, Kangert was sent up the road to deny Nibali’s rivals the time bonuses. It was one of those rare occasions where the gregario’s duties dovetail with personal opportunity, and Kangert was disappointed to miss out on the stage victory in a tight finish.
“I believe I had the legs to take it but I did make a bit of an error in the end,” he said. “Maybe I should have started the sprint myself after Niemic stopped for a moment but those are the errors you make in a race, especially after six hours in the saddle. That’s the way it is.”
As the Giro re-enters the mountains for three days, Kangert returns to his original duties at Nibali’s side, and with snow threatening the full running of the tapponi to Val Martello and Tre Cime di Lavaredo, Thursday’s mountain time trial to Polsa has added significance.
“I guess the mountain time trial is now even more important than it would have been before,” he said. “But otherwise I think it doesn’t change that much for us. I hope we still have the jersey, of course, and in that case we’ll still be controlling things. And there will still be some climbs in those stages in the end, so it will still be hard.
"I can't say who Vincenzo’s biggest rival will be, we’ll see. Evans is a very experienced rider and we never know who can have a super day and attack when we don’t expect it.”
Through it all, Nibali has appeared implacably calm, or as he repeatedly tells the media, “tranquillo.” Kangert confirmed that it is a similar story behind the tinted glass of the Astana bus.
“He is calm,” Kangert said. “He’s a good leader and a good example of someone who is very professional and he doesn’t worry about the things that don’t matter.”
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