It is time to focus on the Astana Pro Team, the squad of Giro d’Italia favourite Vincenzo Nibali and one of the most controversial teams not just in cycling, but in all of sport.
Who are they?
Astana is the capital of Kazakhstan, and the team is funded by the Kazakh government. It was originally built around Alexandre Vinokourov, the country’s star rider of the mid-2000s and the Olympic road race gold medallist from London, but he’s since retired and now runs the team as its sports director.
They also have a couple of smaller sponsors like Air Astana, most of whom are other organisations sponsored by the government of Kazakhstan.
As tempting as it might be to make Borat jokes about the team’s collection of Kazkah sponsors, Astana actually have one of the largest budgets in cycling. It’s hard to ascertain the exact state of the team’s finances (it’s quite rare for teams to open their books to the public), but their budget would be upwards of 10-12 million euros annually – around three million of which is earmarked for Nibali.
Rider for today’s stage
Any rider looking to secure a high placing on today’s stage will need to climb well up the Category 2 Alpe de Poti – a 10-kilometre gravel climb that hits 13 per cent in places – then descend like a demon into Arrezzo.
Given Nibali’s great climbing ability and peerless descending skills, this seems like a stage tailor-made for him to win (which it may well be – it wouldn’t be the first time a Giro d’Italia stage was created to try and ensure an Italian winner).
Fans of gravel racing will be excited to see the race return to the white roads of Tuscany, as the last stage held over the strade bianche was an absolutely fantastic stage of the 2010 Giro, won in appalling weather by then-world champion Cadel Evans.
Nibali doesn’t have very fond memories of that day – he started the day wearing the leader’s pink jersey, but crashed on a rain-slicked descent, eventually losing two minutes to Evans.
Fast forward six years to 2016 and Nibali hasn’t set the world on fire either. Aside from winning the queen stage and the overall title at the Tour of Oman in February and finishing sixth at Tirreno-Adriatico in March, he hasn’t impressed.
Last month he finished almost seven minutes behind his main rival Mikel Landa (Team Sky) at the Giro del Trentino, and was completely anonymous at an edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège where he was Astana’s designated leader.
Nibali is the only one of the main favourites who’s won the Giro before, as he romped to the 2013 title in a race defined by appalling weather. He is perhaps the most complete rider of all the main favourites – whether it’s climbing up mountains, racing over rough cobbled roads, pushing himself to his limits in a time trial or descending like a madman, there’s nothing he can’t do.
For the second year in a row ‘The Shark of Messina’ is the Italian champion, and proudly wears the tricolore at the Giro in his home country, where he’ll be madly cheered by the tifosi.
With all of those factors in mind, we can’t think of a man better suited to today’s 169-kilometre stage from Foligno to the Tuscan town of Arrezzo than ‘Lo Squalo’.
Jakob Fuglsang is good enough over the three weeks of a race like the Giro that he’d be the designated leader in almost any other squad – he finished seventh overall at the Tour de France in 2013 and was a key component in the Grand Tour wins for Andy Schleck at the 2010 Tour de France and Nibali at the 2013 Giro.
In recent years he’s been deployed more in the service of the likes of Nibali and his climbing countryman Fabio Aru than as a leader in his own right – his last professional victory was at the Tour of Austria in 2012, before he’d even been signed to Astana!
Last week Fuglsang revealed in an interview with the Recon Ride podcast that he’ll been allowed to chase a high place overall at this year’s Giro alongside Nibali, so it’s definitely possible for him to crack the top ten by the time the race hits Turin in two weeks’ time.
From the team’s perspective, nothing short of another overall win for Nibali will do – a high placing for Fuglsang will just be the icing on the cake. A couple of stages along the way wouldn’t hurt either.
Reason to cheer
Nibali is a seriously classy rider, and watching him pull away from other pros on a descent is something to behold. The fact that he’s a former winner of this race and Italy’s highest profile cyclist means that Astana will never be short of roadside support.
Those who refuse to watch cycling because they believe everyone is on drugs will see Astana as living proof that the sport isn’t worth their time.