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.”

 

Australia’s Jay Vine wins Tour Down Under

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ADELAIDE, Australia — Australia’s Jay Vine defended his overnight lead to win the Tour Down Under, the first event of the 2023 World Tour.

Simon Yates of Britain won the final stage and moved up from third to second place on overall standings. Vine came in second on the stage to secure the biggest win of his career in a stage race.

The UAE Team Emirates rider took the overall tour lead when he finished second in Stage 2 and third in Stage 3. He came into the final stage with a 15-second lead on general classification.

The 70-mile stage involved four laps of a 15.5 mile-circuit through the Adelaide Hills before finishing just beyond the summit of Mount Lofty.

Yates led the crucial attack on the ascent less than 1.2 miles from the finish, but Vine jumped onto his wheel and Australian Ben O’Connor also joined in.

O’Connor led out close to the finish line, Vine briefly passed him but Yates came over the top to claim the stage win. Vine retained his overall advantage and claimed the title in his debut appearance in the Tour Down Under.

The 27-year-old made his name in e-Sports before being signed by the UAE team after winning the academy program on the Zwift online platform. He won two stages of the Vuelta a Espana last year and the Australian Time Trial title.

“It’s pretty incredible to be standing here and wearing this jersey,” Vine said. “The way we drove that was first class. My guys were incredible.”

The final stage featured a breakaway of 13 riders but Vine’s UAE teammates led the chase by the peloton and put their rider in a position to contest the win.

Yates again rode an aggressive race but had to be happy with the stage win.

“We came Down Under with a lot of ambition. We put a lot into it and we didn’t come away with the overall but we can walk away pretty happy,” Yates said. “Obviously Jay Vine is a massive talent and the crowd will be happy with a local winner.”

France’s Coquard wins Tour Down Under Stage 4; Vine leads

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ADELAIDE, Australia — French cyclist Bryan Coquard won Stage 4 of the Tour Down Under for his first-ever World Tour win, while Australia’s Jay Vine retained the overall tour lead by 15 seconds with one stage remaining.

Coquard is a lightweight sprinter who has had 49 wins in a decade-long career but had never won on the World Tour until he cleared out near the finish to claim the 82-mile stage by a margin of about just over 100 feet.

Vine was among the leading group that shared Coquard’s winning time and who retained his lead on general classification over Britain’s Simon Yates and Germany’s Phil Bauhaus. The race concludes with Stage 5, which ends atop 2,329-foot Mount Lofty.

“It’s a long time that I’ve waited for this win, 10 years,” said Coquard, who rides for the French Cofidis team. “I never really expected and I’m very happy and relieved with this win.”

While the stage was flat and suited sprinters, it had its challenges. Cross-winds and occasional gradients made the stage difficult and confounded some riders.

After an early breakaway by Jonas Rutsch and former tour winner Daryl Impey of South Africa, the peloton broke into two groups with Vine and other tour leaders among the leading group.

The leading group stayed together around the last, sharp bend towards the finish and Coquard bided his time until his late sprint left other riders flat-footed.

“It was pretty stressful,” Vine said. “There was one point there, I thought we were going to have an easy day and I was happy, smiling, waving to families on the side of the road.

“Then, 45 kilometers in it was on and it was on until the end so it was a very hard day. There was a lot more calorie expenditure than I was planning.”