Everything came up roses at the opening stage of the Vuelta a Burgos today for Team Astana, the juggernaut-in-training around Vuelta a Espana co-favorite Vincenzo Nibali. The Sicilian showed his shark-like instincts in launching young protege Simone Ponzi on a last-50-meters attack to take the stage outside the Castle of Burgos, darting inside of Cannondale's Daniele Ratto in the final turn to take the win by a length or so. And immediately afterward, Ponzi began lauding the work of Nibali (correctly) for setting up a perfectly executed win.
It was Nibali, as the remaining peloton headed under the red kite, who took on the task of challenging an armada of Cannondale riders sitting on the front and driving the pace, and challenge them is just what Nibali did. He dashed to the head of the pack over the twisting, rolling roads, looked around to see if Ponzi was in position (he was), and dropped the hammer on the helpless ones in lime, who could only strain to hold Nibali's wheel and then hit the front as soon as the 2013 Giro d'Italia victor moved aside. That left Ponzi sitting on Cannondale wheels (and a couple others), in perfect position with 300 meters to go. And left Cannondale's Ratto, Salerno and Basso gasping for air.
The two seconds' lead for Ponzi means little, as does the race itself, to Astana, who are here getting ready for the Vuelta, where Nibali will attempt to become one of cycling's top two or three riders by winning a second grand tour this year. That itself would be a remarkable achievement, and one that we will be forced to reckon with more closely as the possibility draws nearer (or not). Meanwhile, for the team's long-term prospects, today was a very good day:
- Ponzi feels like a million bucks now, as they say, and he's completely grateful to Nibali, the guy Ponzi will be sacrificing for later this month. Happily, I'd bet.
- Nibali got to warm up the engine a bit, and has to like the results, even if they tell him nothing meaningful about his fitness for the Angliru or some of the other long climbs on tap.
- Strategically in the Vuelta a Burgos, having Ponzi in the lead doesn't really put Astana on the defensive. Sure, if he were their captain, it would, but like any good haggler count on Astana to be willing to walk away from the current standings. They needn't defend today's slim result, but they do own it, and it's incumbent on everyone else to do something about it. That should take pressure off of Nibali, enabling him to ride however he wants for the next four days. If five guys sit on his wheel, he can just pedal purposelessly while Ponzi and another helper head on up the road again.
- If Ponzi isn't being used as a decoy, it's because Astana don't actually want to win here. Of course, everyone wants to win every day, on some level, but if Nibali isn't committing himself, then Astana are willing to live with that result. Which again means Nibali is under no pressure to do anything but ride how he pleases.