Nibali tackles Liège with sky-high morale after Trentino victory
2012 La Doyenne runner-up now riding with former rivals
For many fans, Vincenzo Nibali's 20 kilometre breakaway in the 2012 Liège-Bastogne-Liège was the high point of the race. The 27-year-old's long distance move, very similar to Andy Schleck's lone attack in 2009, looked all but certain to succeed and it provided an attractive change to the typically decisive (and more predictable) battles on the Saint Nicolas.
However, his gamble did not pay off. Instead the Italian was caught by Maxim Iglinskiy on the final part of the last interminable ascent towards Ans, and had to settle for second instead. Behind him, 2012 Amstel Gold Race winner Enrico Gasparotto took third.
This time round there is no risk of the Shark of Messina being sandwiched between two Astana riders like in 2012. Instead all three 2012 LBL podium finishers are racing for the same Kazakh squad and Nibali, fresh from a classy win on the Sega di Ala mountain top finish at the Giro di Trentino, is one of the three Astana contenders in what could well be Liège-Bastogne-Liège's strongest team. There is also the fact that the last Giro di Trentino winner who then went on to take Liège-Bastogne-Liège was Alexandre Vinokourov in 2010, a long-time stalwart of the Astana squad and now the team's general manager. Nibali, for one, will be hoping history will repeat itself.
"Trentino has only just finished and I've got to switch my focus fast, but I'm ready to do so," Nibali told reporters on Saturday. "The length of the course and the type of the climbs there are here suits me very well. That said there are a lot of Classics specialists who have trained really hard here just for these races so I can't expect things to work out well just like that."
That said, the 2010 Vuelta winner is enjoying one of his best seasons to date, with a repeat victory in Tirreno-Adriatico and a strong performance in the Giro di Trentino more than making up for his non-appearance in the top end of the Classics classifications so far.
"Maybe Trentino was my least expected win, not like Tirreno. Trentino I was going well, but there was that time loss on the first day;" - when a breakaway took six minutes. "But it was a big objective for me and to win after such a complicated start to the race was very important. Sega di Ala was a really hard climb, and there were a lot of big names there"- amongst them Bradley Wiggins, whom Nibali described as "a really tough contender."
As for Liège, where Iglinskiy took the biggest win of his career last year, Astana sports director Stefano Zanini told La Derniere Heure on Saturday that "they [Nibali and Iglinskiy] are friends now, that's racing. One day somebody's your enemy in the race, the next they're your teammate."
"Iglinskiy is in great shape, both he and Gasparotto will be protected riders as well in our team. So that makes for a very solid team. Of course Philippe Gilbert (BMC) is the big favourite. But I see one of our riders fighting for the victory."
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The Independent, The Guardian, ProCycling, The Express and Reuters.