Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) began the final part of his Tour de France preparation on familiar roads in the Italian Dolomites on Thursday, convinced he is on track to challenge Chris Froome (Team Sky), Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb), Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) and the rest next month.
Nibali will stay at the Flora Alpina mountain refuge, tucked away near the 1,918 metre-high summit of the Passo San Pellegrino for the next 10 days; mixing long multiple-mountain rides with speed work behind coach Paolo Slongo's scooter and sessions on his time trial bike. It will be a vital last block of training and a mental washout before the chaos and clamour of the Tour, with only Bahrain-Merida teammates Franco Pellizotti, Ivan Garcia Cortina, Luka Pibernik and several key staff members staying with Nibali.
The Bahrain-Merida team leader laid the foundations for his assault of the Tour de France with an altitude camp on Mount Teide in mid-May, he then rode the Critérium du Dauphiné without worrying about results and will now work on his threshold and race simulation in the high mountains while carefully controlling his rest, recovery and diet. He will only return home for a few days before riding the Italian national road race championships and then will head to the Vendee for the start of the Tour de France on Saturday, July 7.
Nibali first trained at altitude around the Passo San Pellegrino area with the Liquigas team and a spell here proved to be vital in 2014 when he was behind schedule with his training. He went on to win the Tour de France, telling Cyclingnews now that he was "in the form of my life during that Tour".
The goal is to discover a similarly rich vein of form this July.
"We're trying to do what's worked in the past, adding some extra things each time for each new goal," Nibali explained during a media day after Cyclingnews followed him on his first training ride.
"The Dauphine wasn't great results-wise but I'm not worried, indeed, I'm pretty happy with how things have gone and are going. I know we've worked well already and we'll be working hard to be at a high level for the Tour de France. It's how you feel after a race like the Dauphine that counts, especially at this point in the season."
Age is a sign of experience
Nibali won the 2014 Tour de France and has won the Giro d'Italia in 2013 and 2016 and the Vuelta a España in 2010. The Tour de France will be the 19th Grand Tour of his career and he will turn 34 in November. Yet he still appears hungry for success and focused on his goal. Age does not weary him; indeed, he sees it as a sign of experience.
"The Tour is my goal of the season, and I think everyone knows how important and how prestigious the Tour is. It's always very hard to be at your very best for the key moments of the Tour, that's the hardest thing but that's the goal," he explained.
"The final goal is to finish on the podium. I'm a little superstitious and so I don't want to say which step of the podium I hope to finish on – but of course, the top step is the best one. I'm ambitious but I think it's also important to be realistic. I'll be up against some huge rivals and so it's important to keep your feet on the ground and fight hard right to the end."
Nibali was a little taken aback when it was pointed out that the veteran Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk was the last rider to win the Tour de France at the age of 33.
"What can I say? It's perhaps an extra challenge but age is also a sign of experience," he argued.
"I'm not worried about my age, I know I took two great podium places last season: third at the Giro, just nine seconds from second place, where Dumoulin earned a lot of time in the time trials. Then at the Vuelta, which was a very different, but very explosive race, I finished second to Froome, so I wasn't far off first place.
"Now we're going to try to win the Tour de France. I think I'm the oldest overall contender in this year's race, I'm a year older than Froome [six months -ed], but modern cycling is more and more about being as fit and as fresh as possible for the big races and I think my experience can help with that."
Nibali refused to pick a preferred or even a pivotal stage in this year's Tour de France route, arguing that "it is hard from the start to the finish." He hopes to lose less than a minute to Froome and Team Sky in the Cholet team time trial, describes the pavé stage as a "real Paris-Roubaix", but is not overly concerned about the intensity of the 65km 17th stage from Luchon to Sant-Lary-Soulon in the Pyrenees.
He dismisses the planned Formula 1-style grid start that day as "a joke".
"It won't make any real difference. We're pro riders and so if you're strong, it won't take you long to get up to the front," he said.
Froome can do the Giro-Tour double
Nibali has made his position on Froome's on-going salbutamol case clear in the past and has little to add now.
"The rules say he can race, so what can I add to that? Not much," he tells Cyclingnews with a shrug and several long silences on either side.
Nibali is more concerned about trying to beat Froome and Dumoulin. He seems to be hoping he will struggle to fully recover from the efforts of the Giro d'Italia and be unable to peak again and be competitive at the Tour de France.
"I don't know how they'll recover after the Giro and how well they'll recover for the efforts of the Tour de France," he ponders. "Perhaps Froome can, considering what he's done in the past."
Asked what extra does the Briton have, Nibali said, slightly enviously: "The team for sure, and the budget to do exactly what they want…."
Four years ago Nibali was often forced to defend his lack of form, his lack of results and respond to the high expectations of the Italian media.
Four years on, with his string of Grand Tour podium victories, his two wins at Il Lombardia and his most recent Monument success at Milan-San Remo, Nibali brushes off any form of judgment or doubt. As he targets perhaps his final Tour de France, the only judgment that matters to him comes when he looks himself in the eye in the mirror.
"I think I'm different to other riders, I've won big Classics but also Grand Tours. That experience has made me more assured and more confident in myself," he said.
"I also know I've worked hard and that I've worked well so far this season and will continue to do so until the Tour de France, so I'm at my best. If things don't work out it won't be a drama. Life goes on. I'll just try to honour the Tour and honour myself as well as I can."
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