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.”