Vincenzo Nibali heads to Utrecht on Tuesday with the goal of winning a second consecutive Tour de France. If he manages to beat Alberto Contador, Nairo Quintana, Chris Froome and all the other overall contenders and reach Paris in the yellow jersey yet again, he will become only the second Italian since Ottavio Bottecchia to win back-to-back editions of the sport's biggest race.
Bottecchia won his Tours in 1925 and 1926, during the pioneering era of Grand Tour racing but was mysteriously killed just two years later. Back-to-back Tour success for Nibali would make him one of the greatest Italian Grand Tour riders of all time, certainly of his generation, after already winning the 2010 Vuelta a Espana and the 2013 Giro d’Italia. Not even Italian legends such as Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali won the Tour de France in consecutive years.
On Saturday Nibali smashed his way to a second consecutive Italian national title and so will again wear the red, white and green ‘tricolore’ colours on his Astana jersey and proudly fly the flag for Italy. Just like in 2014, the national road race was Nibali’s only victory before starting the Tour after a lacklustre first part to the season. Nibali showed plenty of panache in the spring and early summer but again failed to win, with the pressure apparently building on his shoulders and weighing on his mind.
On Friday the Sicilian held his final press conference before travelling to Utrecht. He had just come down from the Passo San Pellegrino in the Dolomites after a training camp with several key teammates and coach Paolo Slongo. In the cool mountain air, Nibali again did several motor-paced race simulation sessions and worked on getting close to his Tour de France race weight.
Slongo insisted that Nibali’s numbers were as good as in 2014, with added self-confidence and experience coming from winning the 2014 Tour de France. ‘Vincenzo e’ pronto” Slongo reassured.
Yet Nibali was on edge on Friday as he spoke to the media. He seemed angry about something and unsure of his form for the national championships and more worryingly for the Tour de France. He is nick-named ‘Lo Squalo di Messina’ – the Shark from Messina, and seemed to be fighting with a prey, reacting with violent swishes of his tail.
“It’s hasn’t been easy for me this year,” he said, with an unusual vein of anger in his voice. “At every race since I ridden since the Tour, everybody has always wanted a piece of me and everybody has always expected me to win. That put a lot of weight on me shoulders and I felt it. This season has been difficult so far, with lots of highs and lows but no real great moments.”
“I had a lot of distractions during the winter, I felt I never recovered from 2014 both physically and mentally. In the past I’ve had far better winters, rested up more and enjoyed a more relaxing holiday, then work on my base fitness in the gym and on the road. I tried to follow my usual training programme but never had a decent peak of form to be able to win something or even produce what I consider a satisfying ride.”
“I’m not sure of my form for the Tour de France if I’m totally honest. I came out of the Dauphine pretty well and then did a camp in the mountains, as everyone could see. I’ve tried to work hard and I think I’ve got finally reached a good level but I’m not sure…”
What a difference 24 hours makes
What a difference an aggressive performance and an important victory can make. Twenty-four hours after being downbeat and pessimistic, Nibali had suddenly found some confidence and moral. He also finally looked lean as he raced in his Astana skinsuit, his muscles and torso as defined and sparrow-like as during last year’s Tour de France. Victory somehow assured him that he was ready for the Tour de France.
During the 220km race, Nibali’s Astana teammates Dario Cataldo and Valerio Agnoli made a first selection after the long ride from Milan to Turin, then he went on the attack during the final to hilly circuits of the Superga climb.
Ulissi was the natural favourite to win the Italian title thanks to his finishing speed and hilly Classics ability, but Nibali took the race to the Lampre-Merida rider and surprise survivor Francesco Reda, attacking them on the descent and then again several times on the four-kilometre climb to the finish. He eventually got away inside the final kilometre to win alone, dispelling his doubts with a wave of his arm and broad smile.
“I needed this win, it can only do me good. It’s a liberation of all the pressure,” Nibali said. “It’s going to be great to wear the Italian champion’s jersey again in France. I didn’t like the idea of putting it away in the wardrobe.”
Nibali also explained why he had been so tense just 24 hours earlier.
“I was full of mixed emotions. It’s hard to race all year and not win because I like winning. I also had an Achilles heal problem that I kept a secret but is fortunately now all okay,” he revealed.
“To be honest I was also angry with my teammate Alessandro Vanotti. He knew how much I cared about trying to win a second title but didn’t want to ride because he was still tired after riding the European Games for Italy.”
Astana names its full Tour de France team on Monday and it is likely that Vanotti, usually Nibali’s personal domestique and roommate, will not be part of the final nine. The Italian media also suggested that Lieuwe Westra might miss out on a place.
Anything can happen at this year’s Tour de France
Nibali will travel to Utrecht with his teammates on Tuesday, finally ready to pursue a second victory.
Nibali gained more than two minutes on the cobbled stage in 2014 and is ready for a fight in the first week of this year’s race and especially on the cobbled fourth stage to Cambrai. He could possibly study the sections of cobbles again on Tuesday before arriving in Utrecht.
“The opening week is going to stressful and dangerous but if the Tour starts off well….” Nibali said, hinting 2014 when he won stage two to Sheffield and pulled on the yellow jersey.
“I don’t want to say it but in theory the cobbled stage could give me an advantage. It was important to go and see the cobbles when riding the Ardennes.”
Because of the limited time trials in this year’s Tour de France route, Nibali named Quintana as his biggest rival and arguably the favourite to win, even if the Colombian has not finished a Grand Tour since winning last year’s Giro d’Italia.
“Froome impressed on the climbs at the Dauphiné but I think Quintana is the most dangerous rider for this year’s race,” Nibali explained. “I don’t know if Contador is tired but you need a perfect season to do the double and Alberto is capable of doing it. I think that Joaquim Rodriguez could be the surprise. He’s been flying under the radar this season but I noticed he was riding well at the Dauphiné. There’s a lot of climbing in this year’s Tour, it’s a different route to usual and so lots of different things could happen.”