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Analysis: Nibali to Astana, and here’s why…

Italy's top grand tour rider is leaving for Kazakhstan, but familiar surroundings, stability and more money await

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MILAN, Italy (VN) — Vincenzo Nibali is leaving home after seven years, switching from Liquigas-Cannondale to Astana. The colors are different and the money is better, but the Italian from Sicily will also find a familiar environment in Astana.

What does it mean for Astana to have 27-year-old Nibali? For the first time since Alberto Contador in 2009 and 2010, the Kazakh team has a true grand tour contender. Nibali has already proven himself with two podium spots in the Giro d’Italia, a win in the Vuelta a España and, not to forget last month, third in the Tour de France.

Astana’s father figure and newly crowned Olympic champ, Alexander Vinokourov knows Nibali well. He held the pink jersey in the 2010 Giro, but lost it for a few days when Nibali and his Liquigas team took it from him in the Cuneo time trial. Vino got it back, but Nibali went on to win the Monte Grappa stage, help Ivan Basso win and take third overall.

Astana re-signed Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner Maxim Iglinsky, but at home in Kazakhstan it has no one with the capacity to win a grand tour. Unlike Sky, which can count on two men within its own boarders, Astana needs to look abroad. The team has done so before, most recently with Janez Brajkovic and Roman Kreuziger.

Brajkovic managed ninth in the Tour and Kreuziger only managed a stage win in the Giro. Nibali was the best of the rest behind Sky’s duo on the Tour so to get him is worth it. The team will reportedly pay him €1.8 million ($2.22m) a year for the next two years — worth it — having upped Liquigas’ offer by €500,000 ($615,000).

Why did Nibali leave Liquigas? He did so because it was good for both his wallet and sporting career. For one, Liquigas is changing. Team manager Roberto Amadio is working with Cannondale to take over title sponsorship. He told VeloNews yesterday that towards the end of August, after the USA Pro Challenge, he would have some good news. However, not having a sponsor secure may have played into negotiations in mid-May when Nibali was leaving for the Amgen Tour of California.

The other reason to leave is to have a change of air. Nibali has a new girlfriend, a new home — they have transferred to Lugano, Switzerland, so she can be close to her university — and so why not a new team? His agent, Alex Carera also works with Damiano Cunego and has seen him stagnate over seven years at Lampre-ISD. Once he was tipped for grand tour greatness, but Cunego has achieved little since his breakthrough Giro win in 2004 — with Martinelli at Saeco.

They say Italians do not travel well and that most boys are mammone, or mamma’s boys. It is only halfway true with Nibali. He may only speak Italian, but he is very independent. He lived away from home since he was 16 years old so that he could train in Tuscany. Over the last few years, he looked over his brother Antonio, who also wants to be professional. You cannot call Nibali a mammone since he lives in Lugano, over the border and on the opposite end of Italy, and far from his mother, Giovanna.

Astana is for the most part an Italian team, with its Monaco base, just over the border from Sanremo, where the famous Italian one-day race ends. One of the most respected Italian managers, Martinelli, also manages the team. The team’s official language will be Italian, helped by Martinelli signing two of Nibali’s trusted helpers: Alessandro Vanotti and Valerio Agnoli.

The fit seems perfect; it’s now up to Nibali and Martinelli to make it a successful one.

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