Vincenzo Nibali is the defending champion, but may already be out of this year's race. AFP PHOTO / FRANCK FIFE

Italian all-rounder Vincenzo Nibali’s forthcoming move from Liquigas to Astana is the biggest of the confirmed transfers so far ahead of the 2013 season.

Nibali, third place in this year’s Tour de France, will head to the Kazakh-based outfit alongside fellow Italian team-mates Valerio Agnoli and Alessandro Vanotti, while another former Liquigas rider, Roman Kreuziger, will jump the Astana ship to join Bjarne Riis at Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank after a disappointing two years trying to fill Alberto Contador’s boots at Astana.

Both moves are quite fascinating. Nibali has finished on the podium of all but one of his previous five Grand Tours, winning the Vuelta a Espana in 2010, but has nevertheless largely underperformed since that inaugural major win two years ago, failing to build on the success of that breakthrough year.

In 2011, the ‘Shark’ picked up just one stage win all season, while this July Nibali was well bettered by British duo Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome of Team Sky in the Tour.

Despite being snared by Astana on a huge three-million-euro-per-year contract by Astana, “Nibali is only a good rider, not a champion,” according to former Italian great Francesco Moser. “He tries, he tries, but he lacks something,” the former Giro winner and world champion added this week.

As well as being a proven Grand Tour rider, Nibali is viewed as strong classics rider – although his performances this year in the one-day races left a lot to be desired. Most recently, he botched his tactics on the Cauberg to overturn Philippe Gilbert in the worlds, while the less said about his sodden Lombardia the better.

Still only 27, Nibali will hope to take things to a next level at Astana – something Kreuziger, his former Czech team-mate from Liquigas, failed to do when he made the very same move two years ago.

One year Nibali’s junior, Kreuziger has had a rather torrid couple of years at the Kazakh team. After cracking in stage 17 of this year’s Giro, Kreuziger was publicly criticised by Astana directeur sportif Guiseppe Martinelli, who said, with admirable candour: “In his two years with Astana, he has only won a stage of the 2010 Giro del Trentino. We expected more from him. I’m disappointed.”

Kreuziger may have momentarily turned things round with a delightful solo win two days later – a timely reminder of his immense potential – but his faltering relationship with the Astana team management seemed irrevocably damaged, and the Czech all-rounder soon signed on the dotted line with Saxo Bank. It ostensibly presents a chance to face his demons and ride alongside the man who he was brought in to replace back in 2011: Alberto Contador.

It will be interesting to see what kind of role Riis gives Kreuziger at Saxo. Presumably he’ll be the team’s man for the Giro, where he will look to improve on his fifth place in 2011. During the Tour you’d expect Kreuziger to be nothing more than one of Contador’s main lieutenants (providing he’s even selected) while Nicolas Roche, another new signing from Ag2R-La Mondiale, will probably get the nod for the Vuelta.

Given the deeper pool of talent Riis now has to choose from, it’s hard to see the Irishman being involved in the Tour next year. More likely, he’ll be given a free role for the Giro, a race he has not taken part in since 2007. Although this will be a knock to Roche, who is half French, it could well work out for the best.

Moving to Saxo Bank, a team which has a clear hierarchy (with Contador the undisputed numero uno), will be a blessing for Roche. It’s high time Roche stopped believing in his GC credentials and became more of a stage hunter – or, as may be the case, a super-domestique. So often we’ve seen Roche come close to taking a win, only to be left undone by lack of support from team-mates or a lack of killer instinct.

Roche riding for GC was lamb dressed as mutton; he was going stale at Ag2R-La Mondiale and this move will shake things up. It could well be the making of him.

Replacing Roche at Ag2R-La Mondiale is the diminutive Italian climber Domenico Pozzovivo. The piano-playing pocket rocket finished eight in this year’s Giro, winning stage eight in the process. Signing ‘Dr Pozzovivo’ (a nickname stemming from his economics degree and love of history) makes perfect financial sense for Ag2R-La Mondiale, one of the poorer World Tour teams: the Italian will probably be on a smaller contract than Roche, and will stand a better chance of delivering a Grand Tour top ten. He is also a proven stage winner.

Besides Pozzovivo, Ag2R are really shaking things up with the arrivals of sprinters Yauheni Hutarovich from FDJ and Davide Appollonio from Sky, plus promising Colombian Carlos Betancur from the defunct Acqua e Sapone and veteran petit-puncheur Samuel Dumoulin.

Cofidis, too, have ramped up their recruitment policy, with Frenchmen Jerome Coppel and Christophe Le Mevel arriving from Sauj-Sojasun and Garmin-Sharp, and most intriguingly, the arrival of Spaniard Daniel Navarro from Saxo Bank. The 29-year-old has been one of Contador’s most faithful lieutenants for the past four seasons but now, unshackled by duty, he’s reunited with former Astana manager Yvon Sanquer, who has taken over the helm at Cofidis.

The second-tier French outfit will hope that a three-pronged attack of Navarro, Coppel and Rein Taaramae will bring more success than recent years (that won’t be hard).

These mini revolutions at both Cofidis and Ag2R come on the back of several lacklustre seasons in which French rivals Europcar and FDJ have impressed. Interestingly, the most successful of those teams – Thomas Voeckler’s Europcar – have been pretty much inactive in the market, losing only their second-tier sprinter Matteo Pelucchi to the new Swiss team, IAM Cycling. Will they suffer? Time will tell.

One rider who will look to getting his career back on track at IAM is Australian sprinter and classics specialist Heinrich Haussler. Now 28, Haussler leaves Garmin-Sharp after a fruitless campaign – his four second-place finishes behind Peter Sagan in California a symbol of how unlucky the former Tour and Vuelta stage winner has become. After a series of injuries he’s close, but not close enough.

GreenEDGE would have been vexed not to land the signature of Haussler – who, on his day, is one of Australia’s finest riders – but they will be pleased to have landed the promising youngster Michael Matthews from Rabobank. Although still unproven on the main stage, Matthews will have a great chance to make a splash for his national team in the coming season.

Back to the initial focus of this round-up, and Nibali is not the only big name to arrive at Astana this close-season. Olympic champion Alexandre Vinokourov may be retiring (this time for good) but the team will also be bolstered by the signings of Danish all-rounder Jakob Fuglsang and young Italian sprinter Andrea Guardini.

Fuglsang missed out on all three Grand Tours at RadioShack-Nissan this year: injury kept him out of the Giro and then a dispute with team management (and in particular Johan Bruyneel) saw him cold-shouldered for both the Tour and Vuelta.

But the 27-year-old showed his promise with overall wins in Luxembourg and Austria – and the Dane will arrive at Astana with high hopes of forming a strong partnership with Nibali, and perhaps riding into the top ten of whichever Grand Tours he’s actually allowed to ride (Astana management will surely have the sense to give him a run out in at least one major race).

Guardini adds the final piece of the jigsaw for Astana, who for so long have been without a strong sprinter. The immensely likeable Borut Bozic arrived last winter but the Slovakian failed to make his mark in a tepid opening season at Astana – but in Guardini, the team had a sprinter who notched 10 wins for Farnese Vini this year, including a superb victory over Mark Cavendish in his debut Giro.

Of course, that man Cavendish will no doubt be subject to the close-season’s biggest money move once his departure from Team Sky is finalised. The most likely suitors are Omega Pharma-QuickStep (see last week’s blog) where he will be allowed to target the green jersey once again – plus be given a train to match those of Lotto Belisol and Argos Shimano.

Sky are showing a rather low-key approach to transfers so far, with their in-tray featuring unheralded Norwegian veteran Gabriel Rasch from FDJ and a couple of young American unknowns. Movistar pair Vasil Kiryienka and David Lopez should give them options, while Dario Cataldo could perhaps become the GC rider he once promised to be. Cataldo will no doubt get his chance in the Giro and the Vuelta, where he won a stage last month.

There is also the much-feted arrival of all-rounder Jonathan Tiernan-Locke, who’s shaping up to be a bit of a British Thomas Voeckler. But you get the sense that keeping hold of Chris Froome is the most important bit of business for Sky – especially given that next year’s Tour could well suit Froome better than Wiggins.

But this is cycling, not football, and contracts are rarely bought out by the highest bidder. Although it’s hard to think of anyone apart from Astana willing to pay Nibali three million euros a year – after all, next year Contador is back and it’s more than likely that the present uncanny record of a dozen different riders winning the past 12 Grand Tours will continue much longer.

Felix Lowe
Felix Lowe

Felix Lowe is an English photographer, writer and Arsenal fan with a penchant for pro-cycling. Eurosport writer and blogger, Felix has covered the major cycling races in the pro calendar for the past decade and is now taking up the sport himself, at the ripe age of 31.

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