Astana team manager Alexandre Vinokourov has recognised that the 2013 Vuelta a España is not yet won and that it will be a tough fight for his leader Vincenzo Nibali in the six remaining race days between Calahorra and Madrid.
Vinokourov knows what he is talking about from personal experience: in 2006, Alejandro Valverde looked to have the Vuelta sewn up but then on a stage to Sierra Nevada, Vinokourov attacked on an unlikely spot - a downhill section into Granada – and claimed the lead and then went on to take overall victory.
Fast forward six years, and last year, again, Alberto Contador managed to upset Joaquim Rodriguez’s applecart just four days out from Madrid, with his memorable attack at Fuente Dé. This time round, with Chris Horner at less than 30 seconds, Nibali losing time on the last Pyrenean stage in what was his first real sign of weakness in the race and both Valverde and Rodriguez looking increasingly strong, the race is far from over.
“The Vuelta is won when we reach Madrid and there are still a lot of difficult stages to come,” Vinokourov told Spanish newspaper MARCA on Tuesday. “The team is going well” – together with Euskaltel-Euskadi, Astana is one of two squads still at full strength in the Vuelta – “and we have full confidence in Vincenzo. But we still haven’t won yet.”
Vinokourov insisted that despite yesterday’s ‘glitch’ for Nibali, he is the most consistent GC rider in the overall’s upper echelons. “Valverde and Rodriguez both did the Tour and some days they have had problems. On days like Andorra, in particular, when it was so cold and rainy, you could see that, although Horner is really strong.
“However, it’s been a while since Vincenzo failed to make the podium of a Grand Tour.” The last time, in fact, was the 2011 Vuelta, when he finished seventh.
Asked if Horner is the number one rival for Nibali, Vinokourov said, “He’s doing very well, but Nibali has still got margin to find even better form, he’s not at 100 percent yet, and we hope he will do better in the stages to come.”
The Angliru, on the second last stage, is where the Vuelta will almost certainly be won or lost. “It’s a very tough stage, but I don’t think there will be huge time gaps,” Vinokourov asserted, “It’s very hard but I think everybody will race there to defend what they have already got in the bag.”
However, in 2011 and in 2008, the last two times the Vuelta went up the Angliru, the race has been decided there on the Asturian climb, widely rated as Spain’s toughest single ascent – and neither outright winners Juan Jose Cobo nor Alberto Contador raced at all conservatively.
Vinokourov also confirmed that Astana may yet sign more riders for 2014, that Nibali will focus on the Tour de France in next season, and that the Kazakh team is set to continue until 2016 at the least.