If the polemic surrounding Vincenzo Nibali’s expulsion from the Vuelta a España has dominated the column inches in his home country in recent days, attention is slowly turning towards that other great Italian obsession, the World Championships road race.
On Thursday morning, the UCI confirmed that Nibali would not be granted dispensation to race again before the end of the Vuelta following his ejection for taking a tow from a team car on stage 2, meaning that he is unable to resume racing at the GP Ouest-France in Plouay this weekend, or even at the GP de Quebec on September 11, but lining out for Italy in the Richmond Worlds on September 27 remains a distinct possibility.
Astana trainer and directeur sportif Paolo Slongo has confirmed that Nibali has already discussed plans to build towards the Worlds with national coach Davide Cassani, and while his programme has yet to be confirmed, the Sicilian could line out – most likely for an Italian national selection – at the Coppa Agostoni on September 16, followed by the Coppa Bernocchi (September 17), the Memorial Marco Pantani (September 19) and the GP Industria & Commercio di Prato (September 20).
“The UCI has said that Vincenzo can’t race before the end of the Vuelta, so that’s put an end to the possibility of riding Plouay and the Canadian races,” Slongo told Cyclingnews in Cordoba on Thursday. “That leaves the Italian races: Bernocchi, Agostoni, Prato and Pantani. We’re talking with Cassani at the moment about the programme but there are no definitive plans just yet.
“Vincenzo certainly wants to race and he’d like to do well at the Tour of Lombardy [on October 4 – ed.]. As for the Worlds, the course maybe doesn’t exactly suit him and [Diego] Ulissi might be the leader, that’s for Cassani to decide, but Vincenzo would certainly like to wear the maglia azzurra in Richmond.”
Nibali did not race between the Tour de France and the Vuelta, meaning that one neutralised team time trial and one fateful road stage aside, he will essentially have spent seven weeks away from action by the time he is able to race again. It remains to be seen just how competitive Nibali can be at the Worlds and the Tour of Lombardy on the back of such a lay-off.
“The big regret is that Vincenzo came out of the Tour in very good shape and was really at 100 percent for this Vuelta, I think he would have been one of the best riders here. It’s a shame not to be able to take advantage of that condition at the end of the season,” Slongo said.
“But still, we’ve got those races in Italy, five or six races before Lombardy, and even though he’s not racing before then, he can still simulate similar situations at home behind motorbike, even if it’s not the same thing, of course.”
Astana and re-building the Nibali group
Nibali reportedly trained with Ulissi near their homes in Lugano on Wednesday – “a Worlds pact,” Gazzetta dello Sport trumpeted – though in the intervening period he will fulfil duties to his Astana squad by travelling to Kazakhstan this weekend for a sportive event.
In the days since his exclusion from the Vuelta, Nibali has alluded to a sense of isolation within his Astana team, though he highlighted that there was no question of dissolving his contract ahead of its expiration at the end of 2016.
Over the past two seasons, Nibali’s most trusted lieutenants have seemingly been side-lined at Astana, amid occasional murmurs in the Italian press their leader had not done enough to fight their corner. Valerio Agnoli was placed on a completely different race programme last year and only had his contract renewed in December, while Alessandro Vanotti was left out of the Tour team this year, though he returned to Nibali’s side for the Vuelta.
While other Italians on the roster – Paolo Tiralongo, Diego Rosa and Dario Cataldo – have followed the same programme as Fabio Aru, Nibali has at times this season cut a rather isolated figure at Astana. One of Nibali’s chief concerns ahead of the 2016 campaign, it seems, will be putting the band back together.
“Vincenzo has always had trusted companions himself and a good group built around him. At the 2014 Tour, for instance, with Fuglsang, Grivko and Kangert, that was a good group,” Slongo said.
“But it’s true that Vincenzo had some situations where the two guys he brought with him from Liquigas, Agnoli and Vanotti, weren’t in the same races as him. So he’s just saying: ‘Let’s get everyone together so that we can plan 2016 in a balanced way, surrounded by people I feel good with.’ So that could be me or [soigneur Michele] Pallini, but also Vanotti or Agnoli.
“The main thing now is to find a bit of calm. As a rider and as a man, Vincenzo has nothing to prove. We’ll finish the season well and then we’ll sit down and plan his 2016 season, and hope to have a bit more luck out on the road.”