Alexandre Vinokourov hugged Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) after he gained enough time in stage 20 to take the pink jersey from Esteban Chaves and set up overall victory at the Giro d'Italia. The Astana team is in its tenth season and was hoping to continue its run of Grand Tour success in 2016 after winning the Giro d'Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana in recent seasons.
The Kazakhstani team manager has often clashed with Nibali in recent years but praised him for the way he fought back from adversity after losing time in the Dolomites last weekend. Vinokourov praised the whole of the Astana team, hinting that victory in the Giro d'Italia could even play a part in convincing Nibali to turn down an offer from the new Bahrain Cycling Team and stay with Astana for 2017 and beyond.
"It's a special day for Vincenzo and all the team. We again showed that team work can make a big difference. We were united together, right to the end and so this is a team victory," Vinokourov told Cyclingnews and other media after watching Nibali pull on the maglia rosa from inside the podium area.
"We worked hard as a team to make it possible, both today and yesterday. Then Vincenzo finished it off and proved yet again that he's a ‘grande campione'. It's a great day for him, for Sicily and for Italy. It was a nerve-wracking race and perhaps especially for the Italian cycling fans. There was always a lot of intrigue but I think it's great for cycling."
Vinokourov has enjoyed success and shame in own career, winning Olympic Gold in the road race in London in 2012 but also testing positive for blood doping during the 2007 Tour de France. He has overseen a steady stream of Grand Tour success at Astana in recent years, including Nibali's success at the 2014 Tour de France. However he said this Giro d'Italia is special because of the way Nibali fought back from losing so much time.
"If someone had said a week ago that'd we'd win the Giro, I'd have struggled to believe them. We said we'd try everything but things were against us. It's a great victory," Vinokourov said.
"I think this is the best Grand Tour we've ever won. We've won the Tour with Vincenzo but taking the leader's jersey on the last climb of the last mountain stage is incredible.
"The time trial was a disaster, it was a really bad day for us. But I gathered the team together on the rest day and said we had to put it behind us and start all over again. That's what we did. Vincenzo changed mentally after that. The mind controls the legs and Vincenzo proved that again.
"Even when Vincenzo had lost time, I told him that the Giro d'Italia only finished in Turin. Some people said that 4:40 was impossible to pull back but we never stopped believing that it was possible."
Stay with Astana in 2017?
Nibali is widely expected to join the new Bahrain Cycling Team thanks to his personal relationship with Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa. However Vinokourov was accompanied by Darkan Mangeldiev, the head of Astana team and the president of the Kazakhstani Cycling Federation. They are due to meet with Nibali on Sunday and make a final attempt to persuade him to stay with the team.
"Let's see what happens… If Vincenzo hasn't already taken a decision, let's see what the future brings," Vinokourov said. "You never know but we've got to decide things before the Tour de France."
Nibali said he hopes to ride the Tour de France and target a gold medal in the road race at the Rio Olympics. Despite tension in the Astana team between Nibali and his younger Italian rival Fabio Aru, Vinokourov hinted that victory at the Giro d'Italia and his Nibali's apparent freshness should see him in the Astana for the Grand Boucle.
"With the great legs and freshness that Vincenzo has, then why not ride the Tour too," Vinokourov said. "I don't think he's tired. We'll see, but I think he could do the Tour."
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