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Sport

Nibali rides serenely toward a place in Tour history

© AFP

Video by Dan LEVY

Text by Peter BERLIN

Latest update : 2014-07-27

As he crossed the line on the final climb of this year’s Tour de France, Vincenzo Nibali did not celebrate like a typical Italian cyclist. But then, even his countrymen agree he is not a typical Italian cyclist.

On Thursday afternoon, as he rode up the Hautacam, one of the Tour's legendary climbs, Nibali was already well ahead in the overall standings. Even so, he made the effort to ride away from his main rival and win the stage.

It was the sort of flamboyant statement great cycling champions make. It was the sort of exploit an earlier generation of Italian cyclists, like Marco Pantani or the sprinter Mario Cipollini, would have milked ostentatiously. But Nibali seemed almost embarrassed by his triumph.

As he came to the line he pointed timidly at his sponsor’s logo and then punched the air quickly and gently, all the while looking shyly down.

This year's Tour leader is quite unlike Pantani and Cipollini, who were always “theatrical”, says Gianni Mura, who covers the Tour for La Repubblica.

“Nibali is like a rider from the 60s. He has panache on the road,” Mura told FRANCE 24. “But he’s very different off the bike. He’s tranquil.”

Biggest margin

With three stages left starting with the flat run to Bergerac on Friday, Nibali led the Tour by 7 minutes and 10 seconds. That would be the biggest margin of victory since Jan Ullrich in 1997 -- and Ullrich later admitted to doping.

It was telling that when Nibali broke away on Thursday his rivals did not chase, a sign that they were beaten. They had conceded victory to the Italian and were focused on the battle for second and third place.

Victory will make Nibali only the sixth man to win all three major tours. He won the Vuelta a Espana in 2010 and the Giro d’Italia in 2013. And he has four other top-three finishes in the three big tours.

Yet, in some ways, Nibali has benefitted from the misfortune of others. Igor Anton’s crash in the mountains handed Nibali the lead in the 2010 Vuelta. Chris Froome’s crashes in the rain and cold and Alberto Contador’s fall on a descent removed his two biggest rivals in this year’s tour. Nibali has also benefited from the drug suspensions of leading rivals, such as Contador, in previous races.

On the other hand, Nibali does not test positive for drugs. He does not crash. He is a superb bike handler and extremely tough. The more dangerous the descent, the colder and nastier the weather, the better Nibali rides.

Silvio Martinello, a former Olympic gold medallist in cycling who is covering the Tour for Italian television, stresses that Nibali is a “normal champion.” It is a phrase with two senses.

“He’s not like a big star whom you can’t touch,” Martinello told FRANCE 24, goingon to name Froome, Bradley Wiggins and Lance Armstrong as recent winners who made themselves unapproachable.

But of course Armstrong was not a “normal champion” because he was doping.

Nibali faces the usual questions about drugs knowing, as every fan does, that a lot of other riders have lied in response. Yet he answers with calm patience, arguing that he is simply the strongest rider left in the Tour, backed by the strongest team, Astana.

'More explosive'

Speaking to the media on Wednesday, Nibali said the race would have been more difficult if Froome and Contador were still riding, because they are “more explosive” riders.

He went on to suggest he was winning easily: “When I get to the end of a stage I'm not giving everything because I don't have to,” he said.

No Italian has won the Tour since the charismatic and beloved Pantani in 1998. The following year, "Il Pirata" was expelled from the Giro on suspicion of doping.

The Italian record in the Tour is poor but it follows a pattern of all the major tours. Despite their recent drought, French riders have won far more editions of the Tour de France than any nationality, Spaniards have won the most Vueltas and Italians have dominated the Giro.

The Italian total would have been better if the great rivals Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali had not lost their peak years to the war. But nine victories shared by six riders spread over 90 years “is not a lot for a county with a great tradition”, said Mura.

Nibali, says Mura, has “reversed the geography” of Italian cycling. All the previous Italian greats came from Tuscany or even further north. Nibali is from Sicily and had to move north at 18 to become a cyclist.

Martinello hopes that Nibali will help reverse the recent form of Italian cycling, ”which has not been at the top of the world for many years.”

Even if, as Martinello says, Nibali proves to be the “tip of an iceberg that has no base”, he can at least guarantee his own place in cycling history on Sunday.

“The true idols are those who win the Giro and the Tour,” said Mura.

They also win in style, which is what Nibali is doing.

Date created : 2014-07-25

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