By Gregor Brown
Sky's Chris Froome was stronger last year when working for team-mate Bradley Wiggins than at this year's Tour de France, according to team Astana rival, Vincenzo Nibali.
"He went well this year but I think that he went even stronger last year when Wiggins won," Nibali told Cycling Weekly. "He'd pull on the climbs for Wiggins and then attack, as well. That's very different to what he was doing this year, when he only made the final selection."
The Italian from Sicily had a front row seat last year and placed third at six minutes behind Wiggins. Froome placed second but showed in the La Toussuire and Peyragudes stages that he had energy to go further.
Froome returned to win this year's yellow jersey. Nibali skipped the Tour in favour of the Italian and Spanish version. He won the Giro d'Italia's pink jersey and barely missed out on the Vuelta a España win, placing second to Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard).
When the two did face off, they tied one to one. Froome won the Tour of Oman, where Nibali placed seventh. In Tirreno-Adriatico, Nibali wrestled the leader's jersey off of Froome on the penultimate day. Under heavy rain, he attacked on the steep climbs and built on his advantage on the descent to Port Sant'Elpidio.
2014 Tour de France
The two will go head-to-head more often this year as they are both building towards the same goal. "They keep asking me if I'll do the Giro but most likely I'll just race the Tour," Nibali said. "It's too bad, the Giro is really beautiful this year."
Astana scheduled Nibali for the Tour de San Luis in Argentina, the Tour of Oman, Paris-Nice, Milan-San Remo, the Critérium International, the classics (Amstel, Liège and maybe Flanders), Tour of Romandy and the Critérium du Dauphiné. Sky has yet to confirm Froome's schedule but it should include many of the same races.
Nibali said that he is ready to get out to the training camps and races because at his new home in Lugano the pressure is building after the Giro win.
"It's just over the border so it's like Italy, everyone stops you," he explained. "I'm out training, they wave and honk. Or they drive ahead, pull over and stop you. They want a photo while you are in the middle of training."
Though still six months away, he listed Froome as his number one Tour rival. Even if he said that he appeared stronger last year, he said that he has improved. "He's become a better TT rider."
This year, Froome's closest challenger was Colombian Nairo Quintana (Movistar) at 4-20 minutes. Quintana may skip the Tour and focus on the Giro as Nibali did this year. Either way, Sky's team boss, David Brailsford said Nibali will be Froome's main Tour rival.
"What I like about Vincenzo is that he's a real cyclist," Brailsford told Italian newspaper, La Gazzetta dello Sport. "He's a fighter, aggressive, and never gives up. He can transform a stage, he's creative and brave. He always gives 100 percent. His talent is obvious and he races in a modern way."
Nibali turned the screws on Froome in Tirreno-Adriatico. He did the same to Wiggins in the Giro's stage to Pescara. He is unsure about his plans for next July, however. He simply said, "I'll deal with Froome when we get to the Tour."
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