GUIJUELO, Spain (VN) — Giuseppe Martinelli is bullish on Vincenzo Nibali.
The veteran Italian sport director at Astana believes his Italian prodigy is the only rider in the peloton right now with the strength, motivation, and team to take on Chris Froome and Sky in the Tour de France.
“If Froome is No. 1 right now, Vincenzo is No. 2,” Martinelli told VeloNews. “Next year, we are going to try to be No. 1 in the Tour.”
Nibali, who started Thursday’s sixth stage wearing the leader’s jersey at the Vuelta a España, steered clear of a showdown with Froome at the Tour this year.
After winning the Giro d’Italia in impressive fashion in May, the “Shark of Messina” took a break to reload for the Vuelta and the world championships, which are being held on a climber-friendly course on his home roads in Florence next month.
That was the plan from the beginning of the season, and so far it’s unfolded perfectly. Nibali has come into the Vuelta gaining strength as the race unfolds, all with the idea of keeping his GC options open in Spain, and hitting peak form in time for the worlds.
On Wednesday, Nibali said he’s feeling better as the Vuelta rolls toward its second week.
“The goal now is to use as little energy as possible, to save it for the decisive stages waiting in the final week,” Nibali said. “I want to be strong at the end of this Vuelta. And why not try to win?”
While Nibali and Astana are very much concentrated on the here and now, they’re already thinking about 2014.
Martinelli confirmed to VeloNews that next year, Nibali’s primary focus will be the Tour.
“Next year, Vincenzo will focus on trying to win the Tour,” Martinelli continued. “A lot depends on how the course looks. We think he has a good chance of winning. He was good in 2012, and he’s only getting better.”
Indeed, Nibali was the only rider to even come close to challenging the Sky gauntlet in 2012, when Sir Bradley Wiggins won and Froome was an unhappy runner-up. Nibali posted a career-best third to become the first Italian to reach the Tour podium since Ivan Basso in 2005.
Froome, unhindered by the presence of Wiggins, roared through this year’s Tour to confirm he is now the man to beat over the next few years.
With much of the Spanish armada aging — Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) will be 31 at next year’s Tour, while Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) will be 34 and 35, respectively — Nibali is poised to be Froome’s main challenger next July.
Nibali seems up to the task. Last year, he was the lone rider who had the legs to try to challenge Wiggins and Froome in the mountains.
And this year, Nibali dished out Froome’s sole loss in a stage race during the first half of the season, knocking him back at Tirreno-Adriatico. Froome won every other stage race he started, taking top honors at the Tour of Oman, Critérium International, Tour de Romandie, and the Critérium du Dauphiné.
Martinelli believes that Nibali, who also can put down a good time trial, will have the legs to challenge Froome in the mountains.
“Sky is very strong right now, but we are building a good team around Vincenzo for next season,” Martinelli continued. “Right now, Froome is the strongest, but we will see what happens next year. Vincenzo is very focused on his career right now. We are motivated to try to win.”
Throw in the emergence of Nairo Quintana (Movistar), and that sets the stage for a great showdown next summer, but first comes the Vuelta. Nibali and Astana are in the driver’s seat right now, and they do not want to let the opportunity to win Nibali’s third career grand tour slip away.