PLATEAU DE BEILLE, France (VN) — The only thing certain in Astana is that Vincenzo Nibali is lacking something one year after winning the 2014 Tour de France.
The Italian from Sicily lost time almost daily in the opening nine days and failed to follow the big stars when the Tour went up its famous mountain passes this week.
At the Astana team bus Thursday morning, no one seemed to know what was wrong with Nibali. Speculation also swirled around the Village Départ that Nibali could be near the breaking point with the Kazakh team in turquoise.
“Angry? Yeah, of course, I’m a little angry, but I was a rider not so long ago and I know that you need a clear head to figure out what went wrong,” Astana general manager Alexandre Vinokourov told VeloNews.
“We are going to forget about the GC now and try to win the stage, then prepare a team for the Vuelta. At the minimum, we must win one big tour this year.”
Vinokourov softened his comments from two days ago when Nibali lost pace 11 kilometers before the La Pierre-Saint-Martin summit finish. While the riders were showering, he said that Nibali would need “a good mechanic because something is broken in his head.”
“I’m not thinking about [his future] now,” Vinokourov continued Thursday morning. “I’ll help the team through the Tour, then we can talk. But he still has another year left in his contract.”
Nibali has a contract through 2016 and earns an estimated 4 million euros ($4.3 million) annually. Asked if he expected more from his high-paid star, Vinokourov said, “No comment.”
Vinokourov served a suspension for doping as a professional and retired after his 2012 London Olympics road race win. When asked if Nibali’s future on the team is in jeopardy, Vinokourov dismissed the suggestion.
On Wednesday, Nibali told VeloNews, “Vino’s words? I’m not interested in them.”
“What’s going on this Tour is completely night and day from last year,” team manager Giuseppe Martinelli explained.
“I think that Vincenzo needs to change gears, put into fifth and not care about anyone, knowing he won all three grand tours.
“Vincenzo’s not leaving the team. I’m always there with Vino when he’s talking with the riders, Vino would not give up Vincenzo so easily. He’s pissed, but not only about Nibali, he’s upset about everything that’s going badly at the moment.”
Astana has not had a quiet moment since Nibali took the trophy on the Champs-Élysées last year. Soon after, five of its cyclists (three from the feeder team and two, including Nibali’s helper Maxim Iglinskiy, from the top team) tested positive for drugs. The team led a successful fight to keep its UCI WorldTour racing license.
Astana began the Tour with more mud on its face, however. Lars Boom tested for low cortisol levels but started anyway, defying the rules set by the Movement for a Credible Cycling — of which Astana is a member. Boom abandoned the Tour this week with a fever.
Nibali stayed focused on the race, but besides some brief moments, it did not go well. He explained that he still does not know what is wrong. “There’s nothing to say,” he explained. “I have no idea.”
Astana’s team doctors took Nibali’s blood Wednesday to have it analyzed for signs of a virus. Trainer Paolo Slongo explained that Nibali could be suffering from an misaligned hip after his stage 2 crash.
“With the numbers that he had before the Tour, Nibali should be there with Nairo Quintana and Tejay van Garderen,” Slongo said.
“That’s the Nibali that we know. We were ready for that. We are searching to find the reason.”
If Nibali finds his fitness, a stage win could be possible; otherwise, he may need to make new plans.
Vinokourov explained that Fabio Aru and Mikel Landa, second and third in the Giro d’Italia behind Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), are preparing for the Vuelta a España, but that Nibali should be ready to race if needed. What changes will be made for 2016 remains uncertain because the team wants to first focus on finishing in France.
Later on Thursday the Astana team released this statement from Vinokourov on the matter:
“There has never been a question that Vincenzo Nibali will leave the team at the end of the season — Vincenzo is doing very well in the team
“Of course I am not happy when we don’t win, as is the case with all team General Managers — But I merely think that Vincenzo is not riding at his best level in this Tour
“Nibali has a potential that is much better than his current place in General Classification
“We are going to do medical tests to determine the reason for his performance, and we also wish to see him race in the Vuelta a España this season to achieve a Grand Tour victory
“There is no problem between him and the Team, and we have full confidence in him, contrary to what is being reported in the press.”