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Believable Nibali on the cusp of greatness

Vincenzo Nibali can relax - today is a day for the sprinters. (Photo via Team Sky).
Expert
21st July, 2014
4

Just six days – and the small matter of the Pyrenees – separate Vincenzo Nibali from joining the pantheon of greats who have triumphed in all three of cycling’s Grand Tours.

Baring the kind of crashes that have seen his two biggest rivals become mere footnotes to the 2014 Tour de France, Nibali will ride into Paris and become the sixth rider in history (and only the second Italian after Felice Gimondi) to secure cycling’s ‘triple crown’ – victories in the Giro, Tour and Vuelta.

Nibali won’t ever be as big a legend as three of the others on the illustrious list – five-time Tour winning behemoths Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault and Eddy Merckx; nor will he be as explosive (and perhaps, by extension, as entertaining) an all-round package as Alberto Contador.

But there won’t be too many doubts about his provenance. This, after all, is a rider who, on leaving his home in Sicily to turn professional for Fassa Bortolo in 2005, was told in no uncertain terms by his father to forget ever coming back if he tainted the family name by cheating.

Like the videos that Nibali’s parents still sell in their store in Messina, Nibali is a bit of anachronism: a Grand Tour winner who also dabbles in the spring classics – and an Italian who has garnered so much success without ever being weighed down by doping scandals.

His progression to the top has been both consistent and constant. Nibali has not finished outside the top seven of a Grand Tour since 2009. His lowest placing in 12 Grand Tours has been the 20th place he achieved in his debut Tour in 2008, one year after he finished 19th in his debut Giro aged 23.

While Chris Froome was last year forced to dismiss doubts about his meteoric rise from rags to Tour de France riches by stressing his second-place in the 2011 Vuelta the summer before he shepherded Bradley Wiggins to his own Tour triumph in 2012, Nibali does not come under such severe scrutiny in the first place because his record really does speak for itself.

“I’ve always been a standard-bearer for anti-doping,” Nibali told reporters on the second rest day in Carcassonne. “People ask questions because they want to understand my story, my past and how I’ve developed year-by-year. With all the wins and my progress in the Grand Tours, I’ve always improved step-by-step.”

Indeed, in his native Giro, Nibali has come on with each of his five performances, finishing third and then second before finally triumphing in 2013.

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The Tour, too, has seen Nibali make steady progress, with a sixth and a third preceding his likely win next Sunday.

Spain’s often unpredictable Vuelta is the only race which turns these stats on their head: Nibali won it at the first attempt in 2010 before dropping to seventh the year later and then narrowly missing out last September to 41-year-old American Chris Horner, who the Sicilian memorably quipped was equipped with “an extra gear” over the rest of the field.

But what of this year?

Coming into the Tour, Nibali was widely panned by his critics and his chances written off by most. He looked undercooked in the Criterium du Dauphine and finished well outside the top ten in his previous four stage races of the season. His first win came just days before the Grand Depart in Yorkshire – a victory in the Italian national championships that was apparently so surprising that Astana didn’t even bother designing a proper Italian national champion’s jersey for him ahead of the Tour.

Prior to that first win of the season, rumours were circulating that Astana manager Alexander Vinokourov had even sent Nibali a personal letter ordering him to up his game – or else.

True or not, even rumours of such a development were clearly sufficient to have the desired effect. Nibali won in Sheffield in Stage 2 before putting on a quite devastating display on the cobbles of northern France.

People can say that Nibali is only leading this Tour because both the main favourites are out – but the yellow was already his by the time both Froome and Contador hobbled into their team cars.

Not that this will stop people attributing Nibali’s win more to the failure – or absence – of others.

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His critics will say that his 2010 Vuelta victory came ahead of Slovakia’s Peter Velits (remember him?) and after favourite Igor Anton crashed out. They will say that the nearest challengers in the 2013 Giro were an inexperienced Rigoberto Uran and an over-experienced Cadel Evans. And they will say that his main rival for the yellow jersey this week will be, if not an ageing Alejandro Valverde, then one of the French rookies Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot, or perhaps the American Tejay Van Garderen, a rider not readily associated with flair or panache.

Meanwhile, the scaremongers and cynics will see Nibali’s three-win salvo (and counting) and seemingly insurmountable five-minute cushion as evidence that, with Vino in charge, Astana’s nefarious past continues unabated.

But there’s nothing in Nibali’s performances that have me reaching for the panic button. I’ll admit that I was quite concerned to see him arrive at the summit of La Planche des Belles Filles looking about as out of breath as Armstrong did all those years back in Sestrieres. But then I remembered that his win came after riding clear of three Frenchmen – and not Messrs Contador and Froome.

Were both previous champions still in the race, you would still be expecting Nibali to be making the same kind of inroads over the likes of Valverde, Pinot, Bardet and Peraud as he has been doing without them.

In fact, you could say that it would be more shocking if Nibali wasn’t winning and performing as convincingly as he is.

Regardless of his opposition, the 29-year-old has shown himself to have all the hallmarks of a worthy victor. As previously mentioned – Nibali was already in the lead (and convincingly so) by the time Froome and Contador withdrew. He has also avoided the pitfalls that swallowed up his rivals – another sign of his ability, strength and coolness under pressure.

Let’s not beat about the bush here: Froome and Contador crashed out of the race needlessly – the one because he was not paying attention and because he was fretting about those cobbles; the other because he was taking unnecessary risks on a downhill where there was no time to be made.

A sign of Nibali’s aura as a future Tour champion came in Sunday’s windy, rain-soaked stage to Nimes, where the yellow jersey spotted a dangerous move by Van Garderen’s BMC and singlehandedly nullified the threat of an echelon by surging through the field at a breathtaking pace.

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If Nibali wins next Sunday it will be both wholly deserved and a huge boost for clean cycling.

But three back-to-back stages in the Pyrenees are arguably a harder test than anything that has come already – and the man destined for greatness is as aware as anyone that his job is far from complete.

“This is still the Tour de France – every day is flat out, even if it may not always seem that way,” he said in Carcassonne. “There is a possible pitfall on every stage.”

And with a major favourite of this Tour being knocked out at the rate of one per week, Nibali will eager to ensure that he doesn’t go the same way as Froome and Contador – two riders he will hope to take on properly next July as defending champion in the second part of an expected rare attempt on a Giro-Tour double.

It says a lot about Nibali’s frame of mind and ability on a bike as he approaches his best years that the Italian can dream as big as this.