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.”

 

Yates’ Giro lead cut in half, Schachmann wins 18th stage

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PRATO NEVOSO, Italy – Simon Yates remained in the lead of the Giro d’Italia but the British rider’s advantage over closest rival Tom Dumoulin was slashed in half after the tough 18th stage on Thursday.

Yates was dropped by his rivals on the steep Category 1 climb to Prato Nevoso and he finished 28 seconds behind defending champion Dumoulin, who crossed the line with Domenico Pozzovivo and Chris Froome.

“I was just tired, that’s it. Still a few days to go. I can bounce back, no worries,” Yates said.

Maximilian Schachmann of Germany won from a breakaway to claim his first victory in a Grand Tour.

Schachmann attacked heading into the final section of the climb, finishing 10 seconds ahead of Ruben Plaza and 16 ahead of Mattia Cattaneo.

The rest of the breakaway, which escaped 16 kilometers into the mainly flat 196-kilometer (122-mile) route from Abbiategrasso finished more than a minute off the pace.

“The final kilometers were really, really hard,” said Schachmann, who rides for Quick-Step Floors. “I knew I had a good chance from the breakaway. I tried to play it safe, to not attack too early. It was really hard, we are already on stage 18 so no one has fresh legs anymore.”

Yates’ lead was cut to 28 seconds heading into the final three days of the Giro, which includes two brutal days in the Alps before the procession to Rome.

“I always said if I have the legs then I will keep on trying,” Dumoulin said. “I had the legs today and I tried and it worked. Finally, after two and a half weeks.”

Pozzovivo remained third but was 2:43 behind Yates, with Froome a further 39 seconds behind.

Froome arrived at the Giro bidding to become the third person to win three Grand Tours in a row but the four-time Tour de France champion crashed in training before the opening time trial, lost time in a split on stage four, and injured himself again in a second crash four days later.

“It was quite a good day today,” Froome said in Italian. “This is the first of three consecutive stages which will be very hard. We saw for the first time Simon not at 100 percent. That surprised me as until now he has been fantastic.

“After the fall at the start I didn’t feel 100 percent but each day I felt better and now I’m quite good.”

There are four mountain passes on the route up to Bardonecchia on Friday, followed by Saturday’s “queen stage” up to Cervinia.

The Giro finishes in Rome on Sunday.

Viviani wins 17th stage for 4th win, Yates keeps Giro lead

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ISEO, Italy (AP) Elia Viviani sprinted to his fourth victory of this year’s Giro d’Italia on Wednesday, and Simon Yates maintained his hold on the leader’s pink jersey after the 17th stage.

The Italian won a bunch sprint through rain at the end of the hilly, 155-kilometer ride from Riva del Garda to Iseo, holding up four fingers as he crossed the line.

Sam Bennett, who was looking for his third victory, was second and Niccolo Bonifazio was third.

“Bennett could have moved level today. It was a stage that was more suited to him. He tried to put us in difficulty,” said Viviani. “It was a hard stage because no one wanted to let the breakaway go. The team did a super job. I think they were perfect.”

Danny van Poppel was the first to launch his sprint on the rain-soaked approach to the finish, but Zdenek Stybar and Fabio Sabatini gave a great leadout for Viviani, their Quick-Step Floors teammate.

“I had a few slips, and I just lost the nerve,” said a teary Bennett, his voice cracking with emotion. “I just couldn’t get out. I had the legs again and I just couldn’t get out.”

There was no change in the general classification with Yates leading defending champion Tom Dumoulin by 56 seconds.

“There’s no easy day at the Giro,” Yates said. “This was another hard one and it could have some impact on the coming mountain stages. I heard about splits in the bunch but I never knew who was caught behind.

“I hope everyone is tired because I’m tired.”

Domenico Pozzovivo remained 3:11 behind Yates and 39 seconds ahead of four-time Tour de France champion Chris Froome as the races prepares to head into the Alps.

Thursday’s 18th stage is a mainly flat 196-kilometer route from Abbiategrasso to Prato Nevoso, but ends with a steep Category 1 climb – the first of three summit finishes.

There are four mountain passes on the route up to Bardonecchia Friday, before Saturday’s “queen stage” up to Cervinia.

The Giro finishes in Rome on Sunday.