Tour de France champion Vincenzo Nibali said he was focussed on Sunday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege one-day classic now that his Astana team had seen the threat of suspension lifted.
Astana discovered on Thursday that their World Tour licence, permitting them to take part in major races such as the Grand Tours, like the Tour de France, or ‘Monuments’, such as Liege-Bastogne-Liege, had been confirmed by the world governing body UCI’s Licence Commission.
A series of doping scandals that saw five Kazakh riders from Astana’s professional World Tour and subsidiary Continental Tour teams banned for taking prohibited substances had seen the UCI recommend to its own Licence Commission that Astana’s right to race be revoked.
But with that weight off his shoulders, Nibali, who while riding for Liquigas came second in Liege in 2012 to future Astana teammate Maxim Iglinsky — ironically one of the five Astana riders banned for doping last year — can now concentrate on landing a first Monument success.
“The news (of their licence being confirmed) came, we didn’t celebrate but we were happy everything was resolved in the best way for Astana’s riders and staff until 2016,” said Nibali, who finished eighth in Liege in 2011 and 10th in 2008.
“For me and the team there was never any pressure, except from the media.”
Nibali was beaten by a surprisingly strong showing from Iglinsky in 2012, despite the Kazakh not being known for his one-day classic prowess.
That was the closest Nibali came to winning La Doyenne (the oldest) when he attempted to break away alone.
He was overhauled by Iglinsky, who had counter-attacked with Ardennes Classics specialist Joaquim Rodriguez, before also leaving the Spaniard in his wake in the run-in.
Nibali knows he may need to make another solo bid on Sunday if he is to beat the in-form pair of Michal Kwiatkowski and Alejandro Valverde, the respective winners of Amstel Gold and Fleche Wallonne over the last week.
Both of those are more explosive finishers on an uphill run-in such as at Ans on Sunday at the end of the Liege race.
Liege has 10 categorised climbs — and that doesn’t include the finish in Ans — ranging from the brutal 1km Cote de Stockeu at a thigh-burning 12.5 percent average gradient, up to the 4.4km long Col du Rosier, although with a relatively mild 5.9 percent gradient.
In terms of the amount of climbing done and the total vertical distance tackled, it makes it similar to an Alpine stage on the Tour de France.
– Changed route –
But Nibali needs a fast race to give him a chance to break free from the specialist punchers before the end.
“We (Astana) need to make the race tough unlike the race last year with 60-70 riders arriving together on (the final categorised climb) Saint-Nicolas,” said Nibali.
“This year the route has changed again. At the end there’s no longer Mont-Theux or the variety before the Roche-aux-Faucons (climb).
“Many riders will be obliged to try their luck before (the end).”
He added: “It’s returned to the old route. I’ve done Liege many times and it’s different every year. Some years the key was la Roche-aux-Faucon, some years it was (the finish in) Ans and some years Saint-Nicolas, so it’s never the same.
“It’s clear a Valverde in the condition we’ve seen, who managed great results at Amstel and Fleche-Wallonne, can wait until the end (for a sprint-finish in Ans).
“The other (favourites) are Katusha. We’ve seen the Italian (Giampaolo) Caruso going well, and Dani Moreno and Joaquim Rodriguez won’t be waiting (for the final climb).”
Nibali said: “It’ll be a very different race to the first two (Ardennes Classics). It’s difficult to say how the others will be but I think overall Kwiatkowski will be in competition with Valverde (for the win).”
Factfile on the Liege-Bastogne-Liege ‘Monument’ one-day Ardennes Classic race which takes place on Sunday:
First edition: 1892
Number of editions: 100
Nickname: La Doyenne (the oldest)
First winner: Leon Houa (BEL)
Current champion: Simon Gerrans (AUS)
Most wins: Eddy Merckx (BEL) 5
Number of climbs: 10
Longest climb: Col du Rosier, 4.4km
Toughest gradient: Cote de Stockeu, 12.5 percent
Number of teams: 25
Number of riders: 200
– Agence France-Presse