When Vincenzo Nibali laboured in the Dolomites on the Giro d'Italia's penultimate weekend amid rumours of his imminent departure at season's end for the new Bahrain-backed project, one wondered whether Astana would even see fit to select the Sicilian in their Tour de France line-up.
What a difference a week makes. After somehow recovering to win the Giro he simply couldn't afford to lose, Nibali's status in the Astana team – regardless of his decision vis à vis 2017 – has been buttressed. The Olympic Games road race is the next major landmark on Nibali's horizon, and there is now no doubt that Astana will facilitate his passage to Rio by including him in the Tour team, which is due to be led by Fabio Aru.
"It will be important to recover energy first," Nibali said on Sunday, explaining that he would take the bones of ten days off training before beginning his build-up to the Tour, which gets underway in just under four weeks. "The objective is to ride the Tour with a view to the Olympics. They Olympics are a very important event for me and the Tour would definitely be a decisive part of the build-up."
Astana have carefully kept their two stage race leaders at arm's length for the past two and a half seasons by creating two distinct groups, with Nibali and Aru served by a different core of domestiques, as well as separate coaches, soigneurs and even press officers. The only stage race they have ridden together since the 2013 Giro was last year's Vuelta a España, where any potential leadership contest ended when Nibali was excluded from the race for taking a tow from a team car on stage 2.
Nibali and Aru's co-existence at the Tour will inevitably draw comparisons with Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali's 'Patto di Chiavari' ahead of the 1949 race, though as Alberto Contador's ill-starred attempt to complete the Giro-Tour double last year demonstrated, it seems unlikely that Nibali will have the freshness necessary to compete for the win in July.
"As for how we perform at the Tour de France, we'll have to see. I'll try to be on form but when you've got two big stages races back to back, it's not straightforward. In the past, Contador has tried it a few times but it wasn't simple," Nibali said.
"We all know the Tour is very demanding and Fabio is focusing all of his energies on the Tour. He's preparing for it with a strong group. I'll try to be of help to him, we'll see. We'll both be there and we'll try to do a great Tour together."
Or, as Nibali's coach Paolo Slongo put it to Cyclingnews: "Our idea was to come to the Giro to try to win it, and then knock back a bit. Vincenzo will go to the Tour maybe not in peak condition, but with the idea of building towards the Olympics and supporting Aru if it's needed."
Speaking earlier in the Giro, Astana directeur sportif Giuseppe Martinelli downplayed the prospect of a leadership battle in July, pointing out that the hierarchy for the Tour was perfectly clear.
"If it weren't for the Olympics maybe Vincenzo wouldn't even be thinking of the Tour at this point. But I think if you want to do well at the Olympics, you have to go to the Tour," Martinelli said. "There's no doubt that Fabio will start the race as our leader but having Nibali to show him the ropes will be important."
Martinelli's thoughts were echoed on Monday by Italian national coach Davide Cassani, who is adamant that Nibali must ride the Tour in order to prepare for the Olympic Games, but equally convinced that he cannot afford to race for the general classification in July if he is to be at his best in Rio de Janeiro on August 6.
"During the week, I'll meet with [Paolo] Slongo, Martinelli and Vincenzo. Above all, I'll ask him that he doesn't go to the Tour with the general classification in mind. It's fundamental that he goes there to prepare for Rio, but he'll have to help Fabio Aru," Cassani told Corriere della Sera. "He's mad keen for the Games and he knows that competing for GC at both the Giro and the Tour would compromise the Olympics."
In Cassani's thinking, Nibali and Aru would reverse their Tour roles in Rio, with the younger man serving as a gregario di lusso in a five-man Italian squad that could include as many as four Astana riders. Diego Rosa, part of the gruppo Aru but a key support to Nibali at the Tour of Lombardy last year, has always been in contention, while Michele Scarponi has brought himself into the running after his startlingly spry showing at the Giro.
If victory at this Giro was of critical importance to the immediate future, at Astana or elsewhere, a gold medal in Rio would be something of a legacy achievement for Nibali. Despite his insistence that he gives little thought to his place in history, he confided earlier in the year that the Olympic Games has a certain resonance.
"Well, the Worlds in recent years have been on so-so courses, not suited to climbers. And these Olympics have something special about them," he said. "I still have the image of Paolo Bettini when he won in Athens in 2004 my head. That was a special emotion for everybody."
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