The Vuelta a Espana will see a myriad of rivalries emerge and evolve during the next three weeks. Chris Froome (Team Sky) is the rider everyone wants beat as he chases the Tour-Vuelta double, Alberto Contador will clash with the Briton one last time before retiring, while Esteban Chaves and Adam and Simon Yates will compete for eventual leadership status at Orica-Scott.
In Italy, all eyes are on Vincenzo Nibali and Fabio Aru. Once teammates at Astana, now they are rivals, with Nibali leading the Bahrain-Merida team and Aru top dog at Astana. After Aru missed out on racing against Nibali at the Giro d'Italia due to injury, the two Italians will finally clash in a Grand Tour at this year's Vuelta a Espana.
Their relationship was once tense but riding the Rio Olympics for Italy and often training together in Lugano has brought them closer, with Aru hinting that they can become allies out on the road, while still being rivals, as they take on Froome, Contador et al during the next three weeks.
For now, they are fighting for attention in the Italian media, with La Gazzetta dello Sport obliged to give them equal space and consideration on the eve of the Nimes team time trial. Aru was once Nibali's understudy at Astana but they are almost on equal footing and both have won the Vuelta a Espana – Nibali in 2010 and Aru in 2015.
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Nibali: Focused and on form after the Giro d'Italia
Nibali avoids mentioning Aru and comes across as focused and ready to target a second Vuelta victory. Aru says he will be keeping an eye on Nibali but little else. Their scant regard for each other is a war of few words but one that could blow up on the roads of Spain during the next three weeks.
Nibali has the advantage of having trained specifically for the Spanish Grand Tour in July, while many of his rivals were riding the Tour de France. His carefully chosen words are an indication of his determination and hidden confidence. His younger brother Antonio is also riding the Vuelta a Espana but the two will not share a room, with Vincenzo focused on winning for a second time and so with little time to mentor his brother.
"I'm feeling pretty good. We'll find out how good along the road, day by day," Nibali told La Gazzetta dello Sport.
"I did a good block of training in the Dolomites that gave me the answers [about my form] that I was looking for," Nibali said. "I rode the Tour de Pologne, which suited to aggressive riders but I was pretty good."
Nibali last rode the Vuelta a Espana in 2015, when he was disqualified and sent home after being caught hanging onto his team following a crash. Questions about it still irritate him.
"Things like that happen a lot, of course it wasn't nice," he said. "Sadly it made people think that Nibali hangs on to cars to win races, while I'd crashed and I'd lost more than a minute… For me it's all in the past and I don't think I have to demonstrate anything to anyone."
Nibali rolls of the names of his biggest rivals, adding Ilnur Zakarin's name to those of Froome, Aru, Barguil and Bardet. He is not so sure about Contador's chances.
"Hmm, we'll see. It's his last race and so I'm sure he'll want to do well," Nibali said, suggesting all the overall contenders will be at the same level as they ride a second Grand Tour of the season.
"The Tour-Vuelta double is easier to achieve than the Giro-Tour double because everybody at the start has a Grand Tour in their legs. At the end of the day the level will be about the same," Nibali predicted.
Aru: Ready for a long hard Vuelta
Aru talked to La Gazzetta dello Sport in a different hotel in a different part of Nimes. As usual before a big race, he is more open and chatty than Nibali. Fifth place at the Tour de France helped resurrect Aru's Grand Tour career. He is refusing to discuss his future until after the Vuelta ends in Madrid but is expected to be the new leader of the UAE Team Emirates squad, despite a new improved offer from Astana and interest from Trek-Segafredo.
Despite riding the Tour de France, Aru dismissed any doubts about his form and chances at the Vuelta.
"I don't have doubts but I also don't know how good I'll be," he said. "I prepared for the Giro d'Italia and then rode the Tour de France. Now I'm at the Vuelta too. It's the first time I've ridden two Grand Tours in the same season.
"I think I've recovered well after the Tour. I've trained well without doing too much work but I haven't done any tests, so I don't know my exact level of fitness. I'm aiming high. I think I can do better than in the past and so the sky's the limit."
Aru picks Froome and not Nibali as the favourite for final victory.
"He showed he can do the double last year by finishing second at the Vuelta after winning the Tour. He's the rider to beat, then there's all the other at the same level: Nibali, Majka, Chaves and the Yates brothers. Bardet and Barguil, like me, have ridden the Tour and entering the unknown.
"A surprise? I think there could be two: Poels, even if Sky will ride for Froome, and Julian Alaphilippe."
What about Nibali?
"He's strong and I'll have to keep my eye on him," Aru said, finally conceding his Italian rival some attention.
Aru is also worried about the difficult opening stages of the Vuelta. The Astana team could lose precious seconds in Saturday's 13.7km team time trial and the first mountain stages comes on Monday to Andorra. Sunday's stage across the south of France could also be hit by cross winds and echelons.
"We've got to limit the damage in the team time trail and be ready for the wind on Sunday. Andorra will be a shock and then there's the first uphill finish on stage 5," he said. "The nine uphill finishes means we'll be flat out all the time. It'll be good to watch, with time gaps each time. I feel sorry for the sprinters who will suffer a lot. It's going to be a long hard Vuelta for everyone."
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