TOUR DE FRANCE: Astana aims to add yellow to pink

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ROME — When the team directors at Astana sat down to plan this season, the outline went something like this: A pink jersey for Vincenzo Nibali, a yellow jersey for Fabio Aru, and a gold medal for Nibali.

Nibali carried out the first part of the plan to perfection by winning the Giro d’Italia. Aru has to do his part when the Tour de France starts on Saturday at Mont-Saint-Michel. Then Nibali is expected to lead Italy’s team in the road race at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics with support from Aru.

While Nibali’s Giro victory was produced in dramatic fashion by taking the lead on the penultimate stage, winning the Tour on Aru’s debut in the French classic should be a much tougher assignment, even with Nibali aiding Aru as an unlikely support rider.

“When we made this choice in November after the Tour presentation we knew it was the most difficult option for Fabio,” Astana team director Giuseppe Martinelli said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

“After finishing third and second in the Giro the last two years, it would have been easier to aim for the Giro,” Martinelli added. “We decided to aim for the Tour because we don’t have anything to lose. And because we’re convinced we can do well.”

The climbing specialist Aru won the Spanish Vuelta last year and at 25 is considered one of the future stars of the Tour.

Only 11 cyclists have won the Tour on their first attempt, including greats Eddy Merckx, Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil and Felice Gimondi.

The last man to achieve the feat was French rider Laurent Fignon in 1983.

Aru, however, is not even considered among the top three favorites for this year’s Tour. He’s generally ranked just below defending champion Chris Froome, two-time winner Alberto Contador, and two-time runner-up Nairo Quintana.

“We realize that the best riders and teams go to the Tour, that they’re all in top form, and that it’s not going to be easy,” Martinelli said. “But Fabio has always surprised us since he turned pro. So I hope the same thing happens at the Tour.

“Not many people expected Fabio’s Vuelta victory.”

As for Nibali’s role, Martinelli has handled having two captains in the same squad before. He was at Saeco when Damiano Cunego usurped team leadership from Gilberto Simoni to win the 2004 Giro, and he guided Stefano Garzelli to an unexpected pink jersey in 2000 when captain Marco Pantani struggled.

“This is a little different, because there are so many different goals on offer and we can handle it a little better,” Martinelli said. “The Giro victory has made Vincenzo much more relaxed, he’s already achieved one of his principal goals for this season.

“(Nibali) is going to the Tour with the aim of ensuring that Fabio remains in the best possible condition, to help him do well, and be competitive in some stages. But the main thing is to prepare for the Olympics.”

Nibali has not raced since the Giro and has been preparing for the Tour with a 15-day training camp on the 1,918-meter (6,293-foot) San Pellegrino Pass.

Having won the Tour in 2014, and as the holder of four Grand Tour victories, is Nibali really not considering a run at the general classification in France?

“I don’t think so,” Martinelli said. “I’m not thinking about that right now. We all know that Fabio has prepared well for the Tour and in our plans, Vincenzo is the guy for the Olympics.”

Nobody since Pantani in 1998 has won the Giro and Tour in the same year.

Contador made a stated attempt at the double last year but followed up his Giro win with a fifth-place finish in the Tour, acknowledging that he ran out of energy.

“It’s very unlikely to happen again,” said Martinelli, who directed Pantani’s Mercatone Uno team in `98.

Whatever the results, this will likely be Nibali’s last Tour with Astana. The Sicilian is expected to join a new World Tour team from Bahrain next year.

“There are a lot of rumors out there regarding Nibali and I really think there’s a chance that Nibali could leave our squad,” Martinelli said. “But Astana will go on. Nibali is important to the squad but there are other riders who can make the team proud, too.”

 

Ferdy Kuebler, 1950 Tour de France champion, dies at 97

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LONDON — Ferdy Kuebler, who came back from injury and the interruption of World War II to win the 1950 Tour de France, has died. He was 97.

The Swiss won an epic battle with French rider Louison Bobet in the 1950 race, and became world champion the following year.

Andre Haefliger, the chief reporter at Swiss magazine Schweizer Illustrierte, said from Kuebler’s home in Switzerland on Friday that he could confirm the death on behalf of Kuebler’s widow, Christina. Kuebler died Thursday at a Zurich hospital. He had been suffering from a cold.

Switzerland’s national cycling association, Swiss Cycling, paid tribute to Kuebler and offered its condolences to his family. “We are taking leave of one of the greatest cycling legends of our time,” it wrote on its website.

For many, his biggest achievement was winning the Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege races, then held on successive days, in both 1951 and 1952.

In an era of marathon races on poor roads, Kuebler also won the 1953 Bordeaux-to-Paris after 570 kilometers (356 miles) and more than 14 hours in the saddle.

Born July 24, 1919, into a poverty-stricken family near Zurich, Kuebler knew as a child that he wanted to be a professional cyclist.

Forced as a teenager to find work to support his family, he got a job delivering bread by bicycle.

“I had to climb the mountain up to four times a day. That was how I trained for my career. I told myself: one day you will be a cyclist,” Kuebler said in a 2003 television documentary.

Later, as a Zurich office worker, Kuebler cycled the 100-kilometer (63-mile) round trip from home.

World War II broke out as he was starting to make his name as a cyclist. Kuebler was drafted into the Swiss army.

“I lost five or six of my best years,” he said.

An accident in 1946 that hospitalized him for two months almost ended his postwar career.

He came back in 1947 and started his first Tour, aged 28. He won the first stage, becoming the first post-war wearer of the famed yellow jersey.

In 1950, third-placed Kuebler took over the race lead when Italy’s team of riders withdrew, accusing spectators of assaulting them.

He finished the 4,773 kilometers (2,983 miles) 9 minutes, 30 seconds ahead of Belgium’s Stan Ockers, with Bobet third.

Kuebler chose not to race another Tour until 1954. He finished second, behind Bobet.

After retiring at age 38, Kuebler trained as a ski instructor and worked on the Swiss slopes for 25 winters. In summer he did publicity for the Tour de Suisse and traveled with the race as an official for 35 years.

Kuebler said there was never any other career for him except cycling.

“I always said if I came back to earth – which I hope will happen – I would be a cyclist again,” he said.

New Zealanders join Lance Armstrong in early morning ride

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Several hundred cyclists turned out Tuesday for an early morning ride with Lance Armstrong, who is in New Zealand to film a commercial for a local brewery.

Armstrong issued an invitation by social media to join him cycling around Auckland’s waterfront and a crowd estimated at up to 1,000 turned out.

Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and banned for life from cycling in 2013 after admitting he used performance-enhancing drugs throughout his career.

Armstrong told the New Zealand Herald newspaper that he was glad to know he still has some support.

New Zealand’s Lion Breweries has confirmed it brought the 45-year-old Texan to New Zealand. In an internal staff email, the brewer said “we are using Lance to tell a cautionary tale called `The Consequence’, which depicts how much you stand to lose when you pursue success at all costs.”

“We wanted to highlight that actions have consequences and we couldn’t think of anyone better to demonstrate that than Lance,” the email said.

Armstrong arrived in Auckland on Sunday from Houston, telling reporters he is in New Zealand on business but has bought his bike and golf clubs.

He took part in a ride later that day with a small group including New Zealand Ironman triathlon champion Cameron Brown.