LIEGE, Belgium (AFP) — Now that his Astana team has seen the threat of a WorldTour suspension lifted, Tour de France champion Vincenzo Nibali is focusing on Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
A series of doping scandals that saw five Kazakh riders from Astana’s WorldTour and subsidiary Continental teams banned for taking prohibited substances had spurred UCI leadership to recommend to the UCI License Commission that Astana’s right to race be revoked. Astana discovered on Thursday that their WorldTour license would not be withdrawn.
“The news [of the license] came, we didn’t celebrate but we were happy everything was resolved in the best way for Astana’s riders and staff until 2016,” said Nibali.
“For me and the team there was never any pressure, except from the media.”
With that weight off his shoulders, Nibali can now concentrate on landing a first monument success after years of trying.
While riding for Liquigas in 2012, Nibali took second place in Liège-Bastogne-Liège. It was the closest he’s come to victory in the race in his career. He was beaten by a surprisingly strong showing from future Astana teammate Maxim Iglinsky — one of the five Astana riders banned for doping last year — despite the Kazakh not being known for his one-day classic prowess. Nibali had attempted a solo attack from several kilometers out and maintained an advantage into the final two kilometers, but Iglinskiy overhauled him less than 1500 meters from the line to take the win.
Nibali knows another aggressive day of racing may be required this weekend if he is to beat the in-form pair of Michal Kwiatkowski and Alejandro Valverde, the respective winners of Amstel Gold and Flèche Wallonne over the last week. Both riders are more explosive finishers than Nibali.
Liège has 10 categorized climbs, not including the uphill finish in Ans, that range from the short (1km) but very steep (12.5% average gradient) Côte de Stockeu to the longer (4.4km) but less steep (5.9% average gradient) Col du Rosier.
In terms of the amount of climbing done and the total vertical distance tackled, it makes it similar to an Alpine stage on the Tour de France.
But Nibali needs a difficult race to give him a chance to break free from the specialist punchers before the end.
“We need to make the race tough unlike the race last year with 60-70 riders arriving together on Saint-Nicolas,” he said.
“This year the route has changed again. At the end there’s no longer Mont-Theux or the variety before the Roche-aux-Faucons.
“Many riders will be obliged to try their luck before (the end).”
Nibali is aware of the dangers his on-form rivals pose. “It’s clear a Valverde in the condition we’ve seen, who managed great results at Amstel and Flèche Wallonne, can wait until the end,” he said.
“The other [favorites] are Katusha. We’ve seen the Italian [Giampaolo] Caruso going well, and Daniel Moreno and Joaquim Rodríguez won’t be waiting.
“It’ll be a very different race to the first two [Ardennes classics]. It’s difficult to say how the others will be but I think overall Kwiatkowski will be in competition with Valverde.”