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Nibali Week: New Team, New Heights

Move to Astana brings Nibali to Giro Glory

Cycling: 96Th Tour Of Italy 2013 / Stage 9 Photo by Tim De Waele/Getty Images

In the highest echelons of professional cycling, there’s being in the conversation and there’s being IN the conversation. Lots of guys get named in Tour de France previews — they are literally included in the conversation for the loftiest title in the sport. But only a handful are taken seriously.

Vincenzo Nibali entered the 2013 season in the conversation, in the most literal sense. But he ended it all the way IN the conversation. Being the winner of a depleted Vuelta a España was cool enough and showed that he had something special, but for an Italian cyclist to be taken seriously as a very top rider, he needs to not just win the Giro d’Italia, he needs to impose his will on it. The Giro is a middling predictor of future Tour success if you look at all the names on the honor roll, but it is still the world’s second-hardest race and the most glamorous proving ground for that ultimate level of success. If Nibali wanted to escape his fringe Tour contender status, he needed to make a change. Several changes, really.

Post-Vuelta: What Next?

From his breakout 2010 season, Nibali went into 2011 with more or less the same program, with Roman Kreuziger gone from the team and Ivan Basso, coming off the Giro victory in 2010, graduating to Tour de France leadership. It was a simple enough decision, I suppose, since Basso at least had experience as a true Tour contender, while Nibali didn’t look like a guy who could go from holding off Zeke Mosquera to winning the sport’s biggest event. It didn’t go great, as both the Giro and Vuelta saw big names show up and dominate, Contador in Italy and the Wiggins-Froome duo in Spain. Basso, of course, was little more than window dressing at the Tour, and hitting his mid-30s started to wind down his career.

For 2012, Nibali’s last year under contract, Liquigas would support him at the Tour and send Basso back to the Giro. Now 27, it was time for Nibali to show he could race the Tour, or stop trying. He delivered a very strong, credible performance in the 2012 Tour, matching eventual winner Bradley Wiggins pedal-for-pedal across all of the mountain stages, but getting crushed by a cumulative six minutes in two long time trials (Nibali had done OK in the first one at least). His third place, behind Froome as well, was a very credible performance and a step forward in his position as a Tour leader. Then it was time to make a change.

Le Tour de France 2012 - Stage Sixteen
Nibali attacks Wiggins and Froome, 2012 Tour
Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

The Big Move

According to a VeloNews piece that dove deep into Nibali’s first big contract decision, the move to Astana was a confluence of issues including money, team health, and roster construction. Liquigas reportedly offered him €‎2 million per season, but still had Ivan Basso as their nominal captain, and Roberto Amadio’s team saw its future thrown into doubt when they lost their title sponsor, and would effectively shut down two years later (partly merging with the Slipstream guys). Astana, meanwhile, was on the upswing under the tutelage of Alexandr Vinokourov who had solid sponsorship lined up and something of a reputation for excellence inside the sport? Enough of one to allow him to direct a team from the car anyway.

The VeloNews story also cites Nibali’s mobility — he had already moved with his girlfriend to Switzerland — and the role of his agent who also worked for Damiano Cunego and warned Nibali against the risks of career stagnation when one isn’t willing to make a change. And maybe this is where being Sicilian made a real difference — he’d spent his junior years moving to Tuscany to race, undoubtedly feeling a bit like an outsider to the northern Italian scene that made up almost all of the country’s cycling program. Maybe just that slightly lessened connection made it easy for Nibali to go abroad when his chance came. He’s spoken proudly of his Sicilian roots often enough for this to be part of his mindset.

At Astana, Nibali would be the unquestioned leader at the Giro d’Italia. [Astana meant reuniting with his old mate Kreuziger, who was on Tour duty and would produce a career-best 5th in 2013.] Nibali’s Vuelta win might not have convinced everyone of his Tour-level greatness, and anyway what’s the point of being an Italian grand tour specialist and not try to win the Giro? On one level, an Astana team ushering Nibali to a home cooked win would look pretty familiar to Italian audiences. But Nibali would also be looking to establish new benchmarks — no Sicilian and just a handful of riders from anywhere south of Tuscany had ever wrested Giro fame and glory from the northern hordes. Incredibly, when Nibali went to work for Di Luca in 2007, he would be ushering in the first-ever overall Giro victory by a rider born in the Mezzogiorno.

Cycling: 96th Tour of Italy 2013 / Stage 9
Former teammates and southern “compatriots” connect in 2013
Photo by Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

He would also be leveling up. No disrespect to the Vuelta, but the Giro courses a decade ago were more likely to be loaded with major climbs and produce the hardest parcours of the year. All of these challenges would demand that Nibali rise to a new level.

Taking Charge of the Maglia Rosa

Whatever you want to think about Alexander Vinokourov, you gotta admit he knows how to put a roster together. Whatever he paid — €2 mil or so — to make Nibali his other road captain began paying dividends overnight. OK, he let a few Tour of Oman points get away, but by his first race of any consequence, Tirreno-Adriatico, we started seeing signs that Nibali was truly ready for his new, big role. Nibali won the race, as he had the previous year, only this time, instead of fending off Kreuziger and Chris Horner, he was giving Chris Froome the slip and defending his lead in the time trial against the Englishman about to win the Tour. Then in the Giro del Trentino warmup event, he bested Cadel Evans, Bradley Wiggins and a number of top climbers, all of whom would be his principal competition in the Giro, by soloing away to the final stage win atop the Sega di Ala. The Shark was swimming.

Cycling: 37th Giro Del Trentino/ Stage 4
Nibali winning on Sega di Ala
Photo by Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

In the Giro d’Italia, there was simply no stopping him. The two riders considered his principal competition, the previous year’s Tour and Giro winners Bradley Wiggins and Ryder Hesjedal, both faded from competition before the halfway point. Hesjedal gave away a minute in the first time trial, while Wiggins went astray in the standard lumpy Abruzzo stage the day before. Both drop out on stage 13, leaving Cadel Evans, Rigoberto Uran and Michele Scarponi as NIbali’s main competition. At their best they had a chance of swimming with the Shark, but as cold rain and snow pelted the race in the high mountains day after day, forcing constant revisions and even a complete stage cancellation in the race’s final week.

Nothing the race did could stop Nibali from steadily pulling away. He never once conceded time to his rivals in the mountains, and decisively won the final two contested stages outright — a 20k uphill time trial where he beat everyone (save Sammy Sanchez) by more than a minute, and the shortened 20th stage that eventually ended up atop the Colle Sant’Angelo, where the maglia rosa danced through the snow to crown his Giro achievement.

Cycling: 96Th Tour Of Italy 2013 / Stage 20
Nibali undaunted by the snow, 2013 Giro stage 20
Photo by Tim De Waele/Getty Images

When a grand tour sees top riders drop from competition and stages canceled or shortened on the fly, people can wonder whether we know who would have won under the best of circumstances. Unless the winner of the actual race crushes the field by 4.47 and up, over mountains and time trials, and leaves no doubt who the best man was for whatever race you wanted to run. That was Nibali’s 2013 Giro. He erased any doubt that may have lingered from his “small motor” days and his touch-and-go Vuelta win. Nibali was 28 and at the peak of his powers, which almost included a second Vuelta win — a rare two grand tours in a season — but for Chris Horner’s shocking jaunt up the Angliru. Nibali had previously taken third in the Vuelta a Burgos and was pipped for the bronze medal at the World Championships by Alejandro Valverde. He hadn’t won everything in sight, but he had ridden powerfully, and consistently, across the whole season.

Yeah, Alexander Vinokourov knows how to assemble a roster. Here are the individual rider rankings after Nibali’s first year with the team:

His PDC ranking was second to Peter Sagan. The World Tour — then an arbitrarily narrow set of races — had him fourth, trailing Joaquim Rodriguez, who hadn’t won any grand tours, but did take Lombardia. I’ll stick with CQ and the PdC, thanks. In any event, Nibali wasn’t often talked about like the best rider in the world, but he had in fact leveraged everything he had to execute the best season of anyone, save maybe his supernova ex-teammate Sagan.

From there, Nibali had just one more goal in mind: the Tour de France.

Final General Classification, 2013 Giro d’Italia

  1. Vincenzo Nibali (ITA) Astana, 84h 53’ 28”
  2. Rigoberto Urán (COL) Team Sky, + 4’ 43”
  3. Cadel Evans (AUS) BMC Racing Team, + 5’ 52”
  4. Michele Scarponi (ITA) Lampre–Merida, + 6’ 48”
  5. Carlos Betancur (COL) Ag2r–La Mondiale, + 7’ 28”
  6. Przemysław Niemiec (POL) Lampre–Merida, + 7’ 43”
  7. Rafał Majka (POL) Saxo–Tinkoff, + 8’ 09”
  8. Beñat Intxausti (ESP) Movistar Team, + 10’ 26”
  9. Mauro Santambrogio (ITA) Vini Fantini–Selle Italia, + 10’ 32”
  10. Domenico Pozzovivo (ITA) Ag2r–La Mondiale, + 10’ 59”