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Tour de France

Valverde and Nibali, the Tour’s ‘super-duper’ domestiques

Despite having multiple grand tour victories between them, Vincenzo Nibali and Alejandro Valverde are lining up for this year's Tour as domestiques

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Just call them the super-duper domestiques.

Most Tour de France contenders will have at least one “super domestique” at their side next month — Sky’s Chris Froome will have Mikel Landa, Wout Poels, and Geraint Thomas — but Astana’s Fabio Aru and Movistar’s Nairo Quintana will see support from two of the peloton’s confirmed superstars.

Rather than racing to win in July, Alejandro Valverde and Vincenzo Nibali are racing to win in August, and will be taking on unprecedented helper’s roles during the month when they usually shine.

The reason? The lure of Olympic gold is too strong to ignore. Both see a chance of a lifetime to race for medals on a climber’s course in Rio de Janeiro, and for at least this year, the Tour de France takes the back seat.

“The course is ideal for me,” Nibali said in an interview earlier this season. “And the Tour de France is the perfect preparation for the Olympics.”

Domestiques unlike any other
A domestique is defined as a cyclist who rides in support of their team or captain, pulling on the flats, blocking the wind, and fetching water bottles, while a super-domestique is top-flight climber there with the GC contenders at the end of the key climbs. Think Richie Porte (now BMC Racing) to Froome.

Valverde and Nibali are taking the helper concept to new dimensions. Both are usually at the center of their teams’ gravity, but not this July. Both have won grand tours — Valverde the 2009 Vuelta a España and Nibali the 2014 Tour, 2013 and 2016 Giros, and 2010 Vuelta — and are still at the height of their powers, yet a combination of the arrival of unbridled talents coupled with a rare climber’s course on tap for the Olympic Games means they will step into the helper’s role.

Valverde’s position is a little easier to get your head around. Although he’s one of the peloton’s most consistent performers — racking up wins during the Ardennes classics and a record six world championship medals — he never could crack the Tour. Last year, he rode onto the podium for the first time with third, so changing into a purely helper’s role behind Quintana is not such a hard decision to make.

“Nairo has a better chance of winning the Tour than I do, that’s obvious to everyone,” Valverde said in an interview earlier. “My season is focused on the Giro and the Olympics. Nairo is ready to lead at the Tour.”

Movistar has already been working behind the scenes to ease the way for Quintana to take over sole leadership at the powerful Spanish team. In 2013, Valverde started as outright captain, but lost 10 minutes in a transition stage, opening the door for Quintana’s breakout second-place in the Colombian’s Tour debut. In 2014, Movistar sent Quintana to the Giro to learn what it takes to win a grand tour, and last year, Quintana and Valverde shared leadership duties, with Quintana taking second and Valverde third. For 2016, there will be no confusion over roles.

“Alejandro is the most humble champion I’ve ever worked with,” said Movistar manager Eusebio Unzué. “He accepts his role with professionalism, and I have no doubt he will help Nairo in every moment. The time is right for Nairo to lead at the Tour.”

Things are a little different for Nibali. Unlike Valverde, who is under contract through 2017 with Movistar, Nibali is expected to join the upstart Bahrain team next season, so this likely will be his final Tour in an Astana kit. Like Quintana, Aru has already won a grand tour, with the 2015 Vuelta a España, but he’s never even raced the Tour de France yet, while Quintana has finished second in two starts. Nibali’s decision to ride in support for Aru isn’t as altruistic as Valverde’s support for Quintana, and should be seen through the lens of his departure from Astana and his dream of winning the Olympic medal.

“I have already won all three grand tours,” Nibali said. “The course is Brazil is perfect for my characteristics, and winning an Olympic medal would be something larger than sport. It’s the next milestone that I want to achieve.”

Both teams, however, are equally pleased with the arrangement that avoids a possible conflict on the road, and allows their budding superstars room to roam in the Tour. And both Valverde and Nibali know that an Olympic medal would shoot their profiles even higher.

All for gold
The elite men’s road race is two weeks after the conclusion of the Tour de France, and Nibali and Valverde believe they will have better chances to strike gold if they are not racing with the pressure and stress that comes with the GC for three weeks at the Tour. Quintana, Froome and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) are also talking up their chances in Rio, but all three are putting the Tour first, meaning they will have to go deeper to fight for GC.

It’s a big bet, and it remains to be seen how Valverde and Nibali will handle their respective helper roles. These were not forced demotions, so there should not be major acrimony within either team. In fact, Valverde has said he’s looking forward to racing without the stress of GC hanging over him, and vowed he would sit up to wait for Quintana if the situation presented itself. One wonders if Nibali would do the same thing. The Italian has had a sometimes-rocky relationship with Astana boss Alexander Vinokourov and it’s whispered that Nibali and Aru don’t get along that well.

No matter what happens, it will be odd to see either rider doing the pacing on a major climb for their much younger captains.

Nibali is among cycling’s “Cuatro Galacticos” — the peloton’s collection of four big GC stars that also includes Quintana, Froome, and Contador — and it’s hard to imagine he will be bringing up water bottles for Aru.

Both Valverde and Nibali are usually in the thick of the battle in July, but next month, they’ll be super-duper domestiques. Their payoff could be golden.

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