Five years on, Vincenzo Nibali is once again an Astana rider. The Sicilian won the Tour de France and two editions of the Giro d’Italia during his first spell at the team, but he was coy about his objectives and his prospects for 2022 when he spoke with reporters from a training camp in Altea on Wednesday.
Therein, perhaps, lay part of the attraction of his return. At Bahrain and Trek-Segafredo, where Nibali was the outright team leader, his objectives were usually trumpeted in advance. This week three years ago, for instance, he found himself at a Bahrain presentation in Croatia diplomatically playing down his team’s assertion that he was targeting the Giro-Tour double.
There seems to be no such problem at the revamped Astana-Qazaqstan, where directeur sportif Giuseppe Martinelli has already suggested that Nibali would be able to race in something approaching a free role. Nibali will finalise his race programme with team management in Spain this week, but regardless of where he competes, he appeared to have little desire to build his entire campaign around one or two overarching objectives.
“Essentially, the fact that we haven’t decided on the programme is also because I don’t want to live this season with the responsibility of having to say what my main objective is in advance, with the mental pressure of going to that race looking to get the best result,” Nibali said.
“Of course, inside of me, I have objectives, races where I want to be a protagonist in some way. The competition has gone up to a really incredible level in the last two seasons, so it’s a lot more difficult, but I’m not lacking in determination. I’ve set off on the right foot and now we’ll see what the right objectives to pick are in the Classics and the Grand Tours.”
The only date confirmed on Nibali's calendar thus far was his first race, the Vuelta a la Comunitat Valenciana in February. Elsewhere, Astana have confirmed that Miguel Ángel López will ride the Giro d'Italia, Alexey Lutsenko the Tour de France and David de la Cruz the Vuelta a España, but Nibali's Grand Tour plans are not yet public knowledge.
With the Giro returning to Sicily in 2022, it is perhaps likely that the event will feature on Nibali’s programme, even if he was unable to confirm as much on Wednesday. He also gently deflated the idea that he might line out in all five Monuments this year, not least because Paris-Roubaix has shifted to the weekend prior to Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
“There are certainly lot of races that I have in mind, but I haven’t decided fully yet. There are races like the Tour of Flanders, where I’d like to be present. Paris-Roubaix has been spoken about too, but that’s not certain and it’s more likely that I’ll build up toward Liège-Bastogne-Liège,” he said. “But we haven’t made a final decision yet. We have a draft, but it remains just that for now. I don’t want to say I’ll be present at this or that race when it’s not certain.”
Nibali raced the Giro in each of his two seasons at Trek-Segafredo, but he could only manage seventh overall in 2020 after struggling to find his form following the lockdown, and his 2021 challenge was compromised from the outset due to a crash a month before the Grande Partenza. At 37 years of age, he is aware that his prospects of contesting overall victory in a Grand Tour have diminished as riders almost 15 years his junior come to the fore.
“Obviously, the last two years weren’t the best for me, so it’s hard to be able to say what next season will be like in the Grand Tours,” he said. “It must also be said I had a lot of bad luck, too, but it’s clear that it’s not straightforward. The other contenders are certainly very strong and have shown they have great class, especially Pogačar, so I couldn’t say what the final result would be in a Grand Tour.”
In Wednesday morning’s edition of La Gazzetta dello Sport, Martinelli likened Nibali to the veteran AC Milan striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who has helped propel the team to the top of the Serie A table in this, his second stint at the club. “They’re both star players who know what's around the corner. And they still want to be decisive, in their own way,” said Martinelli.
Nibali smiled when the comparison was put to him, suggesting his role at Astana was as much to help the team’s emerging riders as much as it was to carry the weight of their attack by himself.
The team underwent several alterations during his five-year absence, not least during the Premier Tech’s short-lived stint as co-sponsor, but when the dust settled, the management structure was strikingly similar to the one Nibali left five years ago. Perhaps for things to stay the same, everything had to change. Alexandre Vinokourov has been restored as general manager and there are plenty of Italian voices on the staff, from Martinelli to coach Maurizio Mazzoleni.
“It’s completely different coming back to Astana, because many years ago, when I came here first, it was a new adventure for me,” Nibali said. “Now it’s not the same, but it’s a big responsibility for me, because I have many young riders around me and I have a duty to work with them and try to share some experience with them.”
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.