A collective sign of relief was heard from all British cycling fans this week as Sir Jim Ratcliffe was confirmed as the new owner, and main sponsor, of Team Sky racing.
This year’s Tour de France promises to be the most exciting in years, with four legitimate contenders, all Grand Tour winners, riding out of Utrecht in the hope of pedalling onto the Champs Elysees wearing the famed Maillot Jaune.
Over the coming days we will preview each of the four contenders. Today we start by assessing the reigning Tour champion, Vincenzo Nibali.
‘The Shark of Messina’ showed how well earned his nickname on Stage 2 of last year’s Tour, powering away from the peloton to claim both the stage win and the yellow jersey on what was expected to be a relatively benign day for the general classification riders.
He ended up wearing yellow on all bar two days of the race (not including Stage 1, when no one wears it), in a dominant performance which saw him beat second-placed Jean-Christophe Peraud by a mammoth 7:37 – the largest margin of victory in a Tour since Jan Ullrich’s 1997 win.
While the Tour was something of an anticlimax from a spectators’ point of view – Nibali’s two most potent rivals, Chris Froome and Alberto Contador, crashed out of the race on Stages 5 and 10 respectively – the Italian was the dominant rider of the race, showing class in the mountains, form against the clock, and perhaps most importantly, confidence on the cobbles.
And while you can only beat those in front of you, to say he had an easy win thanks to Froome and Contador’s misfortune shows a lack of respect. A Grand Tour is a war of attrition, and the winner is the strongest survivor. 2014 was Nibali’s year, and he doesn’t need me to tell him he deserved to stand atop the dais in Paris on July 27 last year.
Furthermore, while last year was his maiden Tour victory, he has been arguably the dominant Grand Tour rider of the 2010s, winning the Giro d’Italia in 2013 and the Vuelta a Espana in 2010, with four podium places over the years as well. His win last July saw him become only the sixth man in history to have claimed all three Grand Tours.
Photo: Team Sky
Why Nibali won’t win
Nibali will have to answer 2014’s big questions, which will, tantalisingly, all play out.
Does Nibali have the raw power to beat Froome? Does he have the nous to outfox Contador? Does he have the conditioning to out-climb Nairo Quintana?
Perhaps most difficult of all, can he do so as the reigning champion of the Tour? Though he’s only just turned 30, and could have another good five years in front of him, does he still have the necessary desire?
Nibali has had 15 fewer race days this year compared to last, and at the Criterium du Dauphine, a key lead-up race to the Tour, the Sicilian finished 12th overall, more than four-and-a-half minutes down to the winner, Froome.
Perhaps, like Cadel Evans and Bradley Wiggins before him, one Tour will turn out to be enough.
Why Nibali will win
Firstly, for the second time in as many years the Tour takes in the cobbles of northern France, with Stage 4 containing seven sectors of pavé.
While surely this time around his rivals will have spent significant time training on these treacherous roads, last time out Nibali was the only one to truly attack them. He didn’t see them as a challenge to overcome, he saw them as an opportunity to take time. And didn’t he what!
By the end of Stage 5 last year he had put nearly two-and-a-half minutes into Contador, and Froome’s case of the yips truly announced themselves as he crashed out.
Nibali crossed the finish line for the stage in third, behind teammate Jakob Fuglsang and winner Lars Boom. Crucially, this year Boom has joined Nibali’s Astana team and will likely be the man to shepherd the Sicilian over the cobbles. Scarily, Nibali could put even more time into his rivals this year.
Secondly, Astana are the strongest team in the peloton, with three legitimate Grand Tour contenders in their ranks – Nibali, Fabio Aru and Mikel Landa – as well as a number of up-and-comers and former Grand Tour champions.
While neither Aru nor Landa are expected to line-up alongside Nibai in July, both still recovering from the Giro and in all likelihood aiming for improved positions at the Vuelta in August, Nibali will still turn up to the Tour with an impressive squad.
Once again in the mountains he will have lieutenants Fuglsang, Michele Scarponi and Tanel Kangert, who saw him to victory last year. Add Lars Boom to that list, as well as a few seasoned men for the flats, and you’ve got a dominant team. They may not take home as many stage victories as others, nor end up with many riders particularly high in the GC, but they are primed to give their man a fantastic shot at overall victory.
If Nibali can minimise any losses in the time trial – not that he’s any slouch against the clock, but Froome and Contador tend to be better – he’d be confident of his own skills in the mountains, and can probably most afford a bad day as he has the team to carry him to the line in that situation.