Four years after winning the Tour de France, Vincenzo Nibali is ready to do it all over again. This time, he is approaching the race with far more self-confidence, far fewer doubts and far less pressure on his shoulders.
Only three Italians have ever won two editions of the Tour de France: Ottavio Bottechia (1924 and 1925) Gino Bartali (1938 and 1948) and Fausto Coppi (1949 and 1952). Nibali is hoping to join that select club but pushes back against any pressure to perform, convinced that his palmares, which includes all three Grand Tours, two editions of Il Lombardia and the 2018 Milan-San Remo, is already worth of one of the greats of the sport.
In 2014, Nibali was eaten up by the expectation in Italy for him to perform after winning the Giro d’Italia the year before and finishing second at the Vuelta a Espana. Now older and wiser, his shoulders are far broader and he is better able to handle the expectation of a nation, its fervid tifosi and anyone else.
“If it doesn’t work out, if I don’t win another Tour de France it won’t change anything for me. I’m also not that interested in what people say if they doubt me and question my commitment or even dismiss my chances. I know I’ve worked hard to do well at the Tour de France. Now we’ll see what happens,” Nibali tells Cyclingnews in an exclusive interview, his defiance equal to his pride.
“I think one of my qualities is my determination to overcome and succeed. When I’ve suffered in the past, some people have told me to throw in the towel but I’ve often gone on to win and show I was right. People are easy to criticise these days, especially on social media, it's the digital form of a bar, where people go to hang out, hear their own voice and talk shit… I try to take it all with a pinch of salt, laugh it off and keep my eye on the road ahead.”
It would be wrong to consider Nibali’s dismissive attitude as a sign of defeat or weariness. Nibali will be 34 in November and so, were he to take victory, would become the oldest winner of the Tour de France since veteran Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk won the yellow jersey in 1980. But he feels and looks far younger. His Sicilian pride still shines through when facing questions; the fire is still alive, despite him leaving home in Messina to race in Tuscany when he was just a teenager.
“People shouldn’t think I say that because I’m not motived,” Nibali says.
“Of course, I’m scared of going to the Tour de France and failing massively, just as I’m afraid, or perhaps excited, to go the Tour de France and get a great result. But whichever happens and whatever people say, I’m going to do my race and accept the result. I think that’s a sign of my maturity and a reflection of what I’ve achieved during my career.”
Ploughing his own furrow
Nibali cemented his self-confidence with his daring victory at Milan-San Remo in March. He struggled in the Ardennes Classics and at the Criterium du Dauphine, but continues to plough his own furrow with personal coach Paolo Slongo. They know how to perform at their very best in the decisive mountain stages of a Grand Tour.
Nibali prepared for his 2014 Tour de France victory with a June training camp at altitude in the Dolomites. Four years on, he was back at the family-run mountain rifugio near the summit of the Passo San Pellegrino to quietly add spit and polish to his form, while his rivals were in the spotlight and under scrutiny at the Tour de Suisse, Tour of Slovenia or elsewhere doing reconnaissance rides.
In a 10-day spell with teammates Luka Pibernik, Ivan Garcia Cortina and veteran Franco Pellizotti – who is part of the Bahrain-Merida team for the Tour de France and the oldest rider in this year’s race at 40 – Slongo again pushed Nibali to do high-quality rides in the Dolomites in a triple block of training.
Slongo used a new scooter, which Nibali bought him for motor pacing, on the Passo Pordoi and other legendary climbs in the area. He again designated himself as Chris Froome and Team Sky leading the peloton, with Nibali obliged to attack him from the wheel and kick away repeated times.
Nibali is infamous for avoiding structured training, but Slongo keeps him on the straight and narrow. Personal soigneur Michele Pallini looks after Nibali’s muscles and recovery and the isolated location of the Passo San Pellegrino means there is little to do beyond the necessary. Train. Rest. Repeat.
“We worked well and we’re where we want to be. We’ll soon find out if it’s enough,” Slongo said before heading to France.
Nibali’s only race between the altitude camp and the Tour de France was last Saturday’s Italian national championships. In 2014 he blew away any doubts about his form by winning the tricolore. This time he was left frustrated and finished in the peloton, complaining that Team Sky’s Gianni Moscon had marked him throughout the race. Nibali preferred to let his teammates ride their own race, with Giovanni Visconti and Domenico Pozzovivo finishing second and third behind Elia Viviani.
The form of his life in 2014
Nibali and his Bahrain-Merida team left for France on Tuesday to study the Cholet team time trial course. If everything goes to plan, they will only return home on July 30 after the final stage to Paris on Sunday, July 29.
Nibali is one of 13 Italians riding the Tour de France. He is an overall contender and flag bearer, following in the footsteps of Bottecchia, Bartali, Coppi and many others who have sought success on the other side of the Alps.
“For Italians, the Tour de France is always a kind of adventure and it’s always a difficult adventure. It’s not easy to enjoy it, it’s a real battle but it’s also a special journey,” Nibali explains, happy to have recently received a new book by Giacomo Pellizzari that tells the story of previous Italian adventurers. It is likely to inspire him during his four weeks on the road of France.
Nibali has ridden 18 Grand Tours during his 14-year career and his seventh Tour. Not that he’s counting.
“I’m honestly not sure how many Tours I’ve ridden but I can remember my very first one in 2008,” he says. “I’d also ridden the Giro d’Italia (finishing 11th overall – ed) and so I really felt it by riding the Tour as well. I went into the first half of the race, even wearing the best young rider white jersey. Then I blew up big time.”
Nibali has won four Grand Tours, finished in the top 10 on 12 occasions and on the podium 10 times.
He recalls his 2014 Tour de France victory as a moment of cycling grace.
“I’m not afraid to say that I had the best form of my life in 2014, let’s hope it happens again this year,” he tells Cyclingnews. “I never suffered on a single day of the 21 stages. Zero. That’s perhaps what a rider always hopes for, to be the strongest of all, every day. I was lucky it happened to me and the way it did.
“I’d won the Giro and finished second at the Vuelta the year before and so that only raised the expectations. But I pulled it off. I worked incredibly hard and suffered a hell of a lot in training. I also made some huge sacrifices, especially with my diet and training.
“I can remember that I’d lost a chunk of time in the Criterium du Dauphine, it’s always a tough race for me but we had a good training camp and I opened up by winning the Italian title and then at the Tour I took off and won the stage to Sheffield. I never looked back.
Can it happen again this year?
“Why not?” Nibali asks.
“But I need everything to go my way. We’ve worked hard with that hope and that goal in mind. But it’s not going to be easy, it never is. But deep down, perhaps I prefer it that way….”