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Martinelli says Nibali just getting started

"When he's good, he doesn't need to worry about anyone," Martinelli says of Astana's Italian leader

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CADIZ, Spain (VN) — Of all the superstar riders at the 2014 Vuelta a España, there is one name who is missing: Vincenzo Nibali (Astana).

Rather than race the Vuelta, the recently-crowned Tour de France winner is traveling this week to Kazakhstan to meet with team backers. Instead, Astana brings Fabio Aru and Mikel Landa to the Vuelta, with Nibali reloading for a run at the world championship title and the Giro di Lombardia in October to finish off his season.

There will surely be a lot debate about who is the best rider in the peloton right now, especially with so many top names racing the Vuelta this month, but for veteran sport director Giuseppe Martinelli, there is no confusion.

“Vincenzo is the strongest rider in the peloton right now. He’s won the Giro [d’Italia in 2013] and the Tour, and he was second in the Vuelta in the same year [in 2013], no one else has been so consistent,” Martinelli told VeloNews. “I think he’s demonstrated he is above all the others right now.”

Nibali stood head and shoulders above the Tour this year, dominating the race that many surmised he would enter on the back foot. Crashes that took out Chris Froome (Sky) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) certainly helped bolster Nibali’s chances, but he crushed the field, taking critical gains over the cobblestones, and winning four stages. For Martinelli, there is no debate.

“Nibali really deserved the Tour victory. To win the Tour is the most important race in cycling,” Martinelli said. “The team was strong, Nibali was the strongest, and things could not have gone better.

“It was important to win not only the Tour, but to win stages, to demonstrate that he was the strongest in the race, to leave no doubt,” Martinelli continued. “The victory at Hautacam ended all conversation about who deserved to win this Tour.”

For Martinelli, the question of whether or not Nibali would have won had Froome or Contador been in the race also seems pointless. Nibali was there, the others weren’t — end of conversation.

“He demonstrated a tremendous calm under fire, but I think that came from the confidence he had in himself, and in his team. He had good legs, and after the crashes of Froome and Contador, he was even calmer,” the Astana director said. “When he’s good, he doesn’t need to worry about anyone.”

With Nibali at the top of the peloton’s pecking order, Martinelli and Astana will begin work on the repeat effort. He said it’s too early to speak about a possibility of attempting the Giro-Tour double (something that’s not been done since Marco Pantani in 1998). The first priority is to defend the yellow jersey, something that no one’s done since Contador in 2009-2010, though the latter victory was later stripped following his controversial clenbuterol case.

“To win the Tour raises the challenge of trying to win another one. We’ve seen the past few years it’s not easy. He is at his best in this moment, and I believe he can maintain that level for a few years. He is very professional,” Martinelli said.

“I think it’s always possible to improve. To win the Giro and then the Tour, that gave him tremendous self-confidence. Vincenzo is clearly the strongest in the peloton. Now it’s the others who must beat him.”

Martinelli is leading a young squad here at the Vuelta, and admitted the team will not have the same firepower as it did during July.

“We have Aru, Landa, with a good team, but with the level in the Vuelta, I think it’s too much to talk about the podium or anything too ambitious. We’ll see how the race unfolds,” he said. “If Vincenzo were here, it would be different.”

For Martinelli, Nibali is clearly the man to beat, even when he’s not in the race.