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.”