MADRID (VN) — Former Tour de France podium finisher Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) has been this season’s “Nowhere Man,” at least when compared to the other Tour heavy-hitters.
The top yellow jersey favorites have roared out of the gates in the opening months of the 2014 season, racking up wins and raising expectations, except the usually prolific Nibali.
The Italian is winless after four months of racing, yet Astana is patiently sticking with its star rider. Veteran director Giuseppe Martinelli remains optimistic that Nibali will be a factor when it counts in July.
“It’s been a spring when we haven’t seen the true Vincenzo, that is true,” Martinelli told VeloNews by telephone. “Things have not gone as well as we would have liked. We had hoped the spring would have been different, but we cannot change the past. We are looking forward.”
Martinelli cited a handful of reasons that kept Nibali off the winner’s podium — a crash in Argentina at the Tour de San Luís, the arrival of Nibali’s first child, and a change in training program — but he wasn’t making excuses, simply telling things how he sees them.
Astana has built its Tour de France team around Nibali, and the Giro d’Italia starts Friday in Belfast without its defending champion.
Nibali and Astana decided last year it was implausible to attempt a defense of the pink jersey and then start the Tour de France less than one month later with any realistic expectations of winning the yellow jersey.
“There are no changes in Vincenzo’s program,” Martinelli said. “Vincenzo goes with the same ambition of winning the Tour.”
Martinelli said he is sticking by the decisions the team has made concerning Nibali, insisting that all they can do now is to keep pushing the pedals, and concentrate on preparing for the Tour.
“Vincenzo has been good, but not great. He hasn’t won anything. That’s not what we’re accustomed to seeing,” Martinelli continued. “We are confident things will change before the Tour. Above all, Vincenzo is a big professional. He will do the work to be ready for July.”
After riding to fifth last week at the Tour de Romandie, where archrival Chris Froome (Sky) won the final time trial and the overall to quiet criticism of his equally uneven spring, Nibali will take a short break before turning his attention to the Tour.
While Martinelli admitted that Nibali has been a step below expectations, he said the big surprise of the spring has been the return to form of Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo).
The Spaniard has enjoyed a near-perfect spring, winning Tirreno-Adriatico and the Vuelta al País Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country), and finishing second at the Volta ao Algarve and the Volta a Catalunya.
“I see Alberto as the big favorite for the Tour. Froome showed he was strong again at Romandie, but I can see Alberto has his confidence back,” Martinelli said.
“Alberto has a bit of an edge over Froome, who’s also had a few problems,” he continued. “I know Alberto a little bit. When his head is good, he’s hard to beat. He is very strong in the head.”
Like many of the top pros, Nibali will travel to Tenerife in the Canary Islands, where he will undertake high-altitude training for nearly three weeks before the Critérium du Dauphiné in early June in France. He’ll also preview some of the decisive Tour stages, all with the expectation of challenging Froome for the yellow jersey.
Martinelli admitted that the success of Nibali’s rivals was discouraging, but insisted that the former Giro and Vuelta a España champion continues to believe in his own chances come July.
“It doesn’t help to see Froome and Contador going so well. We are supporting Nibali. He must know the team has confidence in him,” Martinelli said. “Now the big favorites are Contador and Froome, but I am sure Nibali will be there. The spring hasn’t gone as we expected, but we go with confidence for the Tour.”
If recent history is any indication, riders who are flying during the spring have been able to hold their form in July. Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), Bradley Wiggins (Sky), and Froome all won Romandie en route to winning the Tour. Those three also won or performed very well (Evans was second to Wiggins in 2011) at the Dauphiné.
So far, the man with the best spring legs has been Contador, with Froome suffering a string of setbacks in March before his triumph in Switzerland on Sunday. Nibali has put in some brave attacks, including a long-range solo effort at Milano-Sanremo, but that aggression has borne little fruit.
All eyes will be on the Dauphiné come early June. If Nibali isn’t pushing Contador and Froome in the decisive stages, it could mean a very long July for Nibali and Astana.