Vincenzo Nibali and Astana can check the “mission nearly accomplished” box next the Vuelta a España on their 2013 calendar. In a little over a week, the Italian hopes to check the “rainbow jersey” box next to the world championship road race.
Despite entering the Spanish tour off top form, the 28-year-old winner of May’s Giro d’Italia nearly pulled the double. Only a superior Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard), who was strongest in the mountains, kept Nibali from winning his second Vuelta.
The Italian has quickly turned the page and now places his attention on his next, and perhaps real goal of the second half of the 2013 season: the Sept. 29 world championship road race on home roads in Florence.
Fighting in vain for victory in the Vuelta, however, could backfire next weekend. Nibali went deep to try to knock back Horner, especially in the stage 20 dogfight up the Anglirú.
“I am tired after the Vuelta, and maybe that’s not a good sign ahead of the worlds,” Nibali said. “I have to recover my energy and do my last preparations. I will have to race in an intelligent and aggressive manner in Florence. It’s going to be a hard worlds.”
The Astana captain admittedly came into the Vuelta off the top form he carried into May to win the Giro. After taking nearly two months away from racing, he returned to competition with eyes on the Vuelta/worlds double.
Nibali used the Spanish tour to build fitness for the worlds road race, which will take place on a climb-heavy course in the Tuscan hills around Florence.
With the exception of Horner’s superior consistency over three weeks, the plan almost worked.
Nibali left the Vuelta with second place, and the confidence of knowing he went down swinging, and swinging hard.
“After winning the Giro, finishing second in the Vuelta means that I’ve had a great season,” Nibali said. “But I also have to be realistic. I didn’t come into the Vuelta with the same form I had at the Giro. I managed as best as I could, against very strong competitors. It was a hard race right from the gun, so I have to be satisfied with winning the Giro and second at the Vuelta.”
Astana team boss Giuseppe Martinelli also said the team left the Vuelta content.
“We can be satisfied with second. Horner was strongest, so congratulations to him,” Martinelli told VeloNews. “Winning the team time trial was not such a good thing. It put too much pressure on Vincenzo too early. It cost us later in the race. Horner was a big surprise. Vincenzo was building form, but it wasn’t quite enough.”
Martinelli said the world championship is the cherry on the top of the cake waiting at the end of the season. The road to the worlds went through Spain, and Martinelli said Nibali left the Vuelta stronger than when he started.
“The worlds in Italy is very important, for Vincenzo, for the team, for us. Vincenzo will be the leader of the Italian team,” Martinelli said. “He will have options to win. It will be a complicated race, but Vincenzo leaves this Vuelta stronger than when he started. He will arrive in Florence in nearly his top condition.”
As always, the Italians will have a deep team, but Nibali will be the rider with the best chance of winning on the demanding parcours.
The pressure will be on the Italians to secure a haul of medals, not only in the elite men’s category, but also across the disciplines.
National coach Paolo Bettini said that home-road pressure would be a blessing and a curse.
“I know there will be a lot of pressure on us to win a lot of medals, but I am convinced we have made the right choices for a strong and balanced team,” Bettini told ASNA. “We are racing at home, so I hope that the support of the Italian fans will help us across all races.”
Bettini has not won a world title or pushed a rider onto the final podium in the elite men’s road race since taking over as the Italian national coach in 2010. Four long years have passed without an Italian leaving the race with a medal — the longest streak since the Azzurri were blanked from 1954 to 1957.
The former two-time world champ’s fate atop the national team could well lie in the hands of Nibali, who will have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to win the rainbow jersey on Italian roads on a course that’s perfect for his style of racing. Whether or not the fight against Horner will help or hurt him will become clear over 272 kilometers on Sept. 29.