Nibali leads Vuelta a San Juan favorites

Vincenzo Nibali headlines the start list at the Vuelta a San Juan, which includes many grand tour general classification contenders.

SAN JUAN, Argentina (VN) — In the hot and arid countryside, nestled next to the Andes Mountains, Italian Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) is preparing to attack the 2018 season.

Nibali leads the list of stars who flew into the Argentine province for the 36th Vuelta a San Juan. The race starts tomorrow, Sunday, and runs until the following Sunday with a rest day on Wednesday.

This Vuelta, or tour, is part of Nibali’s build-up to July and the Tour de France where he hopes to win a second title while taking on Chris Froome (Sky), Nairo Quintana (Movistar), and Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale).

“I have good condition,” Nibali said in a pre-race press conference room packed with 200 to 300 locals and journalists. “Let’s wait and see, though, I need to see how I go on the road, but this is a good opportunity to kick off the season right.”

Nibali won the Tour de San Luis in the neighboring province in 2010. That win began the season that led to his first grand tour win in the Vuelta a España. He continued on to win the Giro d’Italia twice and the Tour in 2014. Last season, he helped form the Middle East’s first WorldTour team, which is registered on the island of Bahrain and supported by Prince Nasser.

“This season, he looks so much more relaxed,” said La Gazzetta dello Sport journalist Paolo Marabini. “Last year, he was worried about all the pieces falling into place in the team, which he began personally with the Prince. This year, their second year, he is satisfied with the pieces that they put in place, and the addition of riders like Ramunas Navardauskas — that will help.”

The seven stages of the Vuelta a San Juan travel much of the province and to the Andes that form a natural border with Chile to the west.

“The big testing stage is the summit finish to Alto de Colorado, and of course the stage time trial,” said Roberto Amadio, who managed team Liquigas-Cannondale for years and helped the race attract the seven WorldTour teams that will toe the start line.

The Colorado climb that ends stage five goes for 20 kilometers and up to 2,566 meters (8,418 feet). It’s regular, but in the last three kilometers, riders like Peter Stetina and Trek-Segafredo teammate Jarlinson Pantano will have room to attack.

“Nibali looks impressive, but the start list includes local Eduardo Sepulveda, now supported by Team Movistar,” Amadio continued. “Also, his teammate Winner Anacona, Rafal Majka [Bora-Hansgrohe], Daniel Diaz, who won the Tour de San Luis twice, and Oscar Sevilla (Medellin-Inder), who placed second overall last year behind Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo).”

Nibali added, “I’ve been coming to Argentina for many years, this year to San Juan for the second time. I’m motivated. I’m coming off the winter’s break, so this is the start of a new chapter for me, a new year. It’s a good opportunity for me to try something and kick off the season.

“It’s a big race for me and my team, we are going to try to win a stage and the overall. This is the idea, though. Just to start the race well is important. That’s important for the Europe season ahead. So starting here in the warmth, when Europe is cold, is ideal.”

Pole Majka, winner of three Tour de France stages, will aim for the Tour and Vuelta in 2018. “We have a good team here in San Juan, we have a team that can win sprints, but then the GC to is an idea,” Majka said. “I don’t know how my condition is this year, but for sure, it’s not bad.

“We are going for a top 10 in the overall, but I need to see how my condition is. We will work for the sprinters, but I will try for the general classification.”