Vincenzo Nibali will today end a 16 year drought for Italy in the very top echelon of the sport, netting what will be the tenth Tour de France victory in history from that country.
Nibali will join Ottavio Bottecchia (1924 & 1925), Gino Bartali (1938 & 1948), Fausto Coppi (1949 & 1952), Gastone Nencini (1960), Felice Gimoni (1965) and Marco Pantani (1998) in the record books, with his win coming after he led the race for all but two days.
The 29 year old showed his pedigree in the past when he won the Vuelta a España in 2010 and last year’s Giro d’Italia; those victories were important, of course, but he is clear that the Tour de France is most significant of his achievements thus far.
“The Vuelta was really perhaps the most important competition because it gave me the strength to go into the Giro and the Tour in the following years,” Nibali said in a 20 minute press conference held after Saturday’s time trial and available in full here [complete with English translation].
“It is quite clear for me that the Italian Giro was a very important competition for the Italian public, as well. It was a magnificent competition. But within the context of the Tour de France, that is something even greater than the Giro.
“Of course, a lot of attention in the international scene now is on me. It is different. It is a stronger moment. It is a more emotional, intense moment, if you like.”
Being Italian, Nibali took pride in his dominant win in the 2013 Giro. He received huge support from his home fans there and that too was an emotional victory.
However the quality of the Tour de France lineup plus its status as the biggest event in the world give his most recent achievements an additional significance. Because of that, he is clear on how much the race means to him.
“Perhaps the level of the competitors now is higher compared to the other competitions. Let’s not cast any aspirations, of course, on the Giro, which is already a very high level event,” he said.
“But knowing the history of the Tour de France, knowing that my name is going to be engraved in the history of the Tour de France next to the other great names…it is so great for me, it is such an experience for me at the Tour de France. To be privileged to be next to the names of all those other great champions.
“It was never my intention to enter into history just for that, just for the reputation. I really just wanted to win…the sporting side of it was very important for me. When arrived here the first time riding the Tour de France, my greatest emotion was to be able to think of the emotion that I would have if I were to ride first as the leader onto the Champs Elysees, the Parisian public, the Eiffel Tower. It is something that I can’t even explain, the intense emotion that would generate.”
Nibali will experience that emotion today in the French capital, some sixteen years after Marco Pantani also raced up and down the Champs Élysées in yellow. Perhaps inevitably, he was asked to compare those two Italian achievements.
His response suggests that in one aspect, he believes he has achieved a bigger feat than his predecessor.
“It is very difficult to make a comparison between Pantani’s victory and my victory, because Marco won his victory in the last week,” he said. “If I am not mistaken, in fact, two days before the end of the Tour [he actually took yellow after stage 15 - ed.]
“For me it is the contrary – I had the yellow jersey on my back after just two days. I really don’t know what to say. In fact, I really can’t make a comparison here.”
Nibali said that his success was the result of more than a decade and a half of sacrifice. He pointed out that he left home at 15, heading to the Italian mainland in order to be able to race regularly. “Getting to the result we have here is just testimony to the efforts I have made,” he said.
There have been many Tour winners in the years since Pantani but, unfortunately for the sport, many of those victories have been affected by scandal. Recent Tour winners have had to face questions about the source of their strength, and if the achievement can be taken at face value.
Nibali also faced such questions during the race, and again on the final stage. He was asked if he would be willing to have his samples stored and retested again at a future point. That proposal was put to him in English; it is not clear if the translator who converted the question into Italian on his earpiece wasn’t accurate in accurately relaying the information to him, but his full response didn’t quite sync up to what had been asked.
“I am prepared. I am of course ready to accept this idea,” he said. “But my future is the Tour de France, the Giro of course. I really put all my eggs in one basket this year, to win the Tour de France. So I didn’t fall at any time, really. Everything went well, in fact.
“We could come back to the Tour, the Giro next year as well.”
Another journalist followed that up with a more direct question; can the public trust him, and does he race clean?
“It is a great pleasure for me to be able to talk to you about all the sacrifices I have made,” he answered. “Where I have come from. Where I am now. All these sacrifices. I am very proud of what I have accomplished.”
Nibali discussed a range of other topics during the conference, which can be heard above. These included the economic difficulties in Italy and how they have affected his family, the tough period which Italian cycling has faced in recent years, the reasons he gives for the surge in quality of cyclists from the south of the country, his aspirations for one day races such as Milan Sanremo, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and his thoughts on facing absent riders such as Chris Froome, Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana in future Tours.
He also talks about his slow start to the season and how that may have helped him win the Tour, plus the difficulties of spending months away from home and the sacrifices he makes.
He also looks back to his first Tour in 2008, a race where he was disillusioned to finish 20th overall. It was a race marked with several positive tests for CERA and EPO, plus the expulsion of riders like Italian Riccardo Ricco.
“I was a bit disappointed and sad as I had ambitions in 2008. I wanted the white jersey,” Nibali said. “But everything I have done until now – and I am talking about all the controls as well, the biological passport for example, all the longitudinal tests…a lot of progress has been made. We know have the results.
“So I’d like to thank everybody because if I didn’t have all those controls that I have had, strict, targeted controls, I might not be here sitting before you today.”