They reportedly endured a fraught relationship while riding together at Astana, but Vincenzo Nibali and Fabio Aru appeared the best of friends as they prepared to face each other for the first time since the elder Nibali left in the off-season for new venture Bahrain Merida.
Both riders played down any suggestion of bad blood ahead of the first stage of the 2017 Abu Dhabi Tour, with its newly-awarded UCI WorldTour status.
That doesn’t, however, tell the whole story. Despite being team-mates at Astana for four years from 2013-16, the pair might as well have been on different sides.
Astana team manager Giuseppe Martinelli offset the potential for any clash by handing them entirely separate racing programmes.
Nibali, 32, was quoted in a 2016 Cycling Weekly article as often getting “upset and short-tempered”, adding “Fabio never asks anything; he doesn’t consider you. He trusts other people”.
With both men two of the Tour’s biggest names and both among the favourites in a stacked field of climbers, and racing for the first time in four years as direct opponents, sparks could fly.
Nibali is known as Lo Squalo – The Shark – and while he certainly admits he’ll be circling Aru should the two be in direct competition over the next four days, he insists he and Aru are friends ahead of today’s first stage, the 189km Emirates Motor Company Stage in Madinat Zayed.
“The relationship is very good. We are friends,” Nibali said.
“After interviews I am always saying how the relationship is normal. We train together and in the same place. We live close to each other in Lugano (Switzerland).
“In this race he is now my competitor, but this is normal. But there are many rivals in this race, not just Fabio, but Alberto (Contador), Teejay (van Garderen) and Nairo (Quintana).”
The two were, perhaps strategically, placed next to each other as 14 of the Tour’s top riders addressed the media yesterday, but appeared extremely friendly, talking and laughing together.
“I’m delighted to see Vincenzo first of all,” said 27-year-old Aru when asked if he was looking forward to his first clash with his old colleague.
“With all the team obligations we haven’t actually had a chance to see each other until now, despite the fact we only live a few kilometers from each other.
“Between us I can assure you we remain in contact. There are so many rivals here, the level is so high that there’ll be plenty of other things to worry about. I’m going to be giving 100 per cent and try to have a good event.”
Friends or foes, both Nibali and Aru are wise to play it down, as they have bigger things to worry about.
Contador, who along with Nibali are the only two current riders to have won cycling’s Triple Crown of Grand Tour races – Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana – will compete in Abu Dhabi having initially not made it part of his schedule.
Colombian Quintana, the reigning Vuelta champion, is another one to watch out for, as well as Estonia’s Tanel Kangert, reigning Abu Dhabi champion and winner of last year’s grueling mountain stage in Al Ain.
Even when seven-time Grand Tour champion Contador announced he would enter the race, it was reported he would ride in support of Trek–Segafredo team-mate Bauke Mollema, although it seems now the American team will deploy a dual approach.
“I am going to aim for the general classification but we have two options in the team with Mollema,” said the 34-year-old Spanish icon.
“Between us we have two good options. All I hope is that this week Trek-Segafredo win.”
Quintana, 27, will be among the favourites, but is wary of the rest of the field.
“I have a good team, a strong one, but I’ll have to see how I am and how my rivals are. There’s lots of them and they’re very good riders,” he said.
Despite triumphing on Stage 3 and taking the overall title 21 seconds ahead of Team Sky’s Nicolas Roche in October, returning champion Kangert was very realistic in his assessment of retaining his crown.
“I have to say I know my limit and I know I’m not going to win this year,” said the 29-year-old Astana rider.
“I’ve not prepared the same as last year and I’m going to be riding in support of our team leader, Fabio Aru, and hope we achieve a great result as a team.”
The 28-year-old Emirati has been left devastated at being forced out of what would have been a first-ever WorldTour appearance for new team UAE Team Emirates.
The Tour’s rise in prominence to WorldTour status predictably comes with more rules and regulations, with riders expected to provide three sets of blood tests while out of competition to authorities.
The UCI’s Anti-Doping Administrative Management System (ADAMS) was established in 2008 so that professional cyclists could mark when and where they would be available for out-of-competition testing.
However, even though Emirati star Mirza has complied with everything the UCI has asked of him, ADAMS testers have still not got round to taking samples – meaning the 28-year-old was taken out of the starting line-up earlier this week.
“It is devastating but I cannot control it. It’s out of my hands,” Mirza said at the rebranded UAE Team Emirates’ launch on Tuesday.
“I don’t know why it is taking so long, you cannot ask me. They need to visit you in your home but I’m waiting. In Europe it’s normal but in the UAE or Gulf region it’s something new. It’s them taking too long. More than 45 days.
“For me it’s my first WorldTour race and when you do that you have to get three blood tests from ADAMS. I was on the start list and waiting for ADAMS but now I’ve lost my chance.
“I have been sending a lot of emails to them. My team are doing their best but they had an email saying Mirza cannot ride the Abu Dhabi Tour. It’s very sad. Not just for me but my family, all my friends, home supporters. I have a lot of people asking me why I’m not in the start list.”
Despite his disappointment, Mirza is desperate for the situation to resolve itself before his next WorldTour race, the Volta a Catalunya which begins on March 20.
“Abu Dhabi have been biggest race of career so far, but I am sure next year I will be riding on the Tour,” said an upbeat Mirza.
“I’m in the Catalunya start list, that is my next race. I have to do the tests before. That is the end of March so I have one month to sort it out. It depends on them and what they choose because they just turn up. It’s so frustrating.”
He also hopes his absence doesn’t hinder UAE Team Emirates’ chances of success on home soil.
“I hope the team can do well without me,” he added.
“They are good riders and we have some big names, like Rui (Costa), Louis (Meintjes), (Andrea) Guardini. We have all types, sprinters, flats and climbing.
“I expect them to challenge and be among the top positions. (Diego) Ulissi was third in the GC last year so I expect him to be up there, on home soil.”
Mirza, who competed for the UAE in the road race at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio last summer, has long been a star on the local scene.
He has won numerous Emirati national titles and claimed road race silver at the 2015 Asian Cycling Championships, but he has shown tremendous promise in 2017, having been snapped up by UAE Team Emirates.
Mirza finished 21st on Stage 5 at the Dubai Tour and was 23rd on Stage 1, finishing 62nd twice on Stage 2 and 3, and he was looking forward to building on that this weekend.
“I competed in Dubai and Oman too but they weren’t WorldTour races,” he said.
“Abu Dhabi this year would have been my first, it would have been special, but it’s not happening and I’m really sad. I hope to do my tests as soon as possible, because I don’t want to lose out on any more WorldTour points.”
The 28-year-old Quick-Step Floors rider won three of four stages in Dubai earlier this month – the fourth stage of five from Hatta to Hatta Dam was cancelled due to strong winds.
It followed his 2016 triumph and the man who has 14 individual Grand Tour stage wins (nine Tour de France, four Giro d’Italia, one Vuelta a Espana) will be among the favourites for stage, perhaps even overall victory, in the capital this weekend.
Although he is targeting success come Sunday night under the lights of Yas Marina Circuit, Kittel knows he has his work cut out – with Mark Cavendish, Elia Viviani, Andre Greipel, Fernando Gaviria, Alexander Kristoff and Caleb Ewan all in contention in a packed field.
“It was a great start to the season in Dubai and I would like it to continue, but it’s also different circumstances here,” said the Arnstadt native.
“There are more threats here than in Dubai and that’s a challenge. And we will see how I rise to that challenge in the next few days.
“You saw the podium at the press conference. Everyone that was sitting there is a potential winner. That is something I have to take into account. It will be close. Sometimes it comes down to how well you work together with your team. It’s hard to predict.”
“I think my form is good. I’m happy with the conditions. I saw after Dubai that my form was alright and I kept working on it afterwards so I can be satisfied.
“The important thing now is to really focus, not to say ‘OK, I’ve got some wins so it’s not important here’. Abu Dhabi is a goal to the rest of the season and I will give it my best.”
Many of his opponents are also in good form. Orica-Scott rider Ewan won the sprints title at the Tour Down Under in his native Australia, Katusha-Alpecin’s Alexander Kristoff claimed the points classification at the Tour of Oman crown on Sunday while Quick-Step colleague Gaviria won two stages at the Vuelta a San Juan in Argentina.
Manx Missile Cavendish, meanwhile, has form here, having won two of the four stages in Abu Dhabi four months ago.
Orica–GreenEDGE’s Ewan is one of the youngest among the leading sprinters and was sprint king Down Under last month, but has played down his chances of success this weekend and instead picked Kittel as the man to watch.
The 22-year-old said: “To be honest I don’t think my form is as good as it was at Down Under. After that I had a week off and I’ve come straight here from an altitude training camp so I’m not sure if my form will be great or not.
“If I had to pick someone, I think Kittel is going the best. After watching him in Dubai, he was sprinting super quick but it’s hard to tell when all these guys come together. If the smallest thing goes wrong it could cost you because these guys are at such a high level. I guess it depends who’s really up for it on the day.”
Lotto-Soudal’s Greipel, meanwhile, says he and his team will be going all out for victory, despite the fact his leadout options have altered in the off-season with the loss of the reliable Greg Henderson who joined UnitedHealthcare.
“Our team has a bit of a lack of leadout guys but that doesn’t mean that we won’t work together for the sprints,” said the 34-year-old.
“It’s not the usual guys but we have a big chance to win at least one stage. I appreciated a lot what Henderson did for us but we have a lot of solutions.”