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Nibali: First Liege, then California and the Tour

Italian starts Liège–Bastogne–Liège with an eye toward the Amgen Tour and France

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LIÈGE, Belgium (VN) — Vincenzo Nibali leads Liquigas-Cannondale in Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday, but his eyes are on the Tour de France in July.

The Italian told VeloNews, “It’s hard to win, but it’s the number one goal in my books.”

Nibali gathered Saturday at the team presentation for the final spring classic at the Princes Évéques Palace in Liège. RadioShack-Nissan’s Fränk and Andy Schleck stood beside him, two of his rivals for Sunday and for the Tour. Andy Schleck recently inherited his first Tour title from Alberto Contador, who lost the 2010 win following a doping conviction.

Nibali has placed as high as seventh at the Tour, in 2009. He also placed third in the Giro d’Italia and won the Vuelta a España in 2010. Liquigas gave him the right to lead in France this year and told Ivan Basso to focus on a third Giro title.

After some encouragement, Nibali admitted he’s unlikely to race the Giro as well. He said, “The team will decide, but I believe my program will be the Tour of California, the [Critérium du] Dauphiné and Tour de France.”

The Tour starts this year with two stages in and around Liège, where Nibali had his immediate focus ahead of Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

“Every year it seems to be getting harder and harder. This year there’s an extra climb, but the finish is the same. There’s no one favorite; it’s very open.”

Nibali will try to team with the Schlecks and those who need to attack from far out. The goal is to weaken or drop explosive riders like Joaquím Rodríguez (Katusha) and last year’s winner, Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing).

“I’ll likely make my move on La Roche aux Faucons climb. It’s the key to the race. If not there, immediately after on Saint-Nicolas. However, it’s hard to read this race,” Nibali explained.

“Rodríguez is going well and we need to try to anticipate him with an attack, but in a race like this, 260K, it’s very difficult. Whatever you have left in your legs at that point in the race, you have to use.”

Last year, he finished eighth behind Gilbert.

“It was a little bit strange for me because I was always dropped on the climbs and then re-joined by the top. I know the race well by now; I know where I can push it and where I can’t.”

Win or lose, Nibali has already enjoyed a successful year. He won the summit finish stages in the Tour of Oman and Tirreno-Adriatico. The Prati di Tivo stage in Tirreno paved the way to his overall win two days later. It was a perfect dry run for the Tour and encouraging when you consider last year, Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) won Tirreno prior to winning the big one in France.

“I didn’t make any mistakes,” he said. “I gained time bonuses along the way, which served me for the overall.”

There will be no time bonus to help him Sunday, but Nibali will try to deliver Liquigas its first Liège win since Danilo Di Luca in 2007.