This Vuelta is a dress rehearsal for the 2014 Tour, and Nibali is the main character

With Vincenzo Nibali in prime position to win the Vuelta, he’s got a bigger goal in mind: next year’s Tour de France

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TARRAGONA, Spain (VN) — Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) was looking cool as a cucumber on the post-stage podium Thursday after a fairly routine sprint stage that opened the second half of the Vuelta a España.

Nibali’s focus is on the here and now. With the red leader’s jersey he captured following his strong time trial Wednesday, the Italian is poised to win his second grand tour of the year.

And with the world championships waiting on a climber-friendly course on home roads, Nibali could make history over the next few weeks.

Yet behind the scenes, Astana and Nibali are already plotting for 2014. There is one prize that has so far eluded the prolific and promising Italian: the Tour de France.

And this Vuelta is serving as a dress rehearsal for what is sure to be a major showdown between Nibali and Astana on one side, and Chris Froome and Sky on the other.

“This Vuelta is a bit of an experiment for next year’s Tour de France,” Astana sport director Giuseppe Martinelli told VeloNews.

“With a lot of these riders here, Grivko, Brajkovic, Tanel, Fuglsang, it’s a good group that work together. We can gain experience at this Vuelta for next year’s Tour.”

Sky versus Astana. Froome versus Nibali. That’s how the 2014 Tour de France is going to shape up. Forget Alberto Contador. The lone rider and team that truly worry Sky are Nibali and Astana.

In 2012, Nibali was the only rider who dared to challenge the Sky stranglehold from eventual winner Sir Bradley Wiggins and Froome. Nibali was the only rider with the courage, or who had the legs, to attack. With Nibali skipping the Tour this year to focus first on the Giro, which he won with relative ease, and then the Vuelta-worlds double, Froome found himself a step above everyone else at the Tour.

Tour rookie Nairo Quintana (Movistar) made a courageous debut, winning a stage, the king of the mountains jersey, and the white jersey, but he never truly presented a threat to Froome. In fact, their interests were often connected at the belt, as Sky and Movistar worked together to eliminate the Contador threat.

For next year, Nibali is all but sure to focus solely on the Tour. He will likely skip defending his Giro pink jersey to make an all-out run for the yellow jersey.

Martinelli, one of the wisest directors in the business, believes Nibali can go far.

“To beat Froome, I do not know if it’s possible, but we are going to try,” Martinelli continued. “We will talk about the Tour over the winter, but that will be the top goal, without a doubt.”

Astana is slowly building a core group of riders to support Nibali in next year’s Tour. Most of them are in this Vuelta. They started off like rockers, winning the team time trial, and then keeping Nibali out of trouble until the time trial.

“The victory in the team time trial was not a surprise, because it’s the first time we have Fuglsang, Brajkovic, and Nibali on the same team. We have a strong team here at the Vuelta,” Martinelli continued. “For us, the goal is Madrid. We want to do well in this Vuelta.”

Nibali comes to this Vuelta with almost no pressure, but with every possibility of winning his second grand tour of the season.

Not only was Nibali getting kisses from the podium girls as the Vuelta’s race leader, but Astana is also leading the team classification, a category that means almost nothing except to the teams that loves to show it off to sponsors and collect UCI points.

With the red leader’s jersey on his shoulders, he’s poised to become the first rider since Contador to win two grand tours in one season. Contador did it in 2008, winning the Giro and Vuelta, when ASO kept, curiously enough, Astana out of that year’s Tour.

The vibe around the Astana bus is “tranquilo.” Almost no Spanish media are even paying attention. They tend to float around the Movistar, Katusha, and Euskaltel-Euskadi buses. A fresh crew of Italian media showed up this week, including RAI, but it’s almost as if Nibali is on a Spanish holiday.

That’s not to say Nibali isn’t taking things seriously. Those close to him say he’s the most ambitious Italian rider in a generation, and wants nothing less than to become the first Italian to win the Tour since Marco Pantani in 1998.

Martinelli, who was there with Pantani for the good, bad, and the ugly during the “Pirate’s” run, said that Nibali is a rider who has the head and motor to go far.

“I think we will see a great Nibali in the final week of the Vuelta. We will see a big performance,” Martinelli continued. “Nibali is a champion. And he’s looking at the worlds, too, so that’s an important goal as well.”

Whether NIbali can win this Vuelta, and then the rainbow, and later go on to challenge the Froome-Sky juggernaut at the Tour next summer, well, those are fighting words.

If there’s anyone in the peloton with momentum on his side, it’s Nibali. The Spanish armada, which included Contador, is aging and slowing down.

Riders like Quintana, Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp), and Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) are still another Tour or two away from truly being overall contenders.

Nibali is poised to emerge as Froome’s most dangerous rival next year.

“If Nibali can win this Vuelta, then we’ll turn our attention to the Tour,” Martinelli said. “To beat Froome is a big challenge, but Nibali is also a big champion.”

And the groundwork of that assault is being laid during this Vuelta. The riders, the support staff, and Nibali, they’re all working together, all gaining confidence in one another. In Nibali’s first season with Astana, he’s already won the Giro, and he’s poised to win the Vuelta.

And next year, Astana is going to be swinging for the fences.

This Vuelta is an important litmus test. So far, everything is coming up red.

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