Alpe-d’Huez will be the site of the grand finale of the 2015 Tour de France and the climb does not hold the happiest of memories for defending champion Vincenzo Nibali. His sole previous visit came at the 2008 Tour de France and the experience left him shaking his head and effectively vowing, ‘never again.’
That ‘never again’ was aimed not so much at the famous 21 hairpins as at what had preceded them. Though only a callow 23-year-old, Nibali was selected by Liquigas for both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour that season, and while he finished each race in a solid 11th place, he admitted that he was flagging badly come the end of July.
“I was in crisis. I did the Giro and Tour that year and by the last week, I was already spent. I’d used up all my energy,” Nibali said, grimacing at the recollection.
Little wonder, then, that Nibali has never tackled the Giro-Tour double since, although at the presentation of the 2015 Tour route in Paris on Wednesday, he conceded that he was considering the possibility for next season. He was careful to highlight, however, that he has no intention of signing up for Oleg Tinkov’s touted “Grand Tour Challenge” and tacking on the Vuelta a España for good measure.
“Doing all three stage races would be very difficult but doing two might be different,” Nibali said. “Compared to 2008, my physique is very different. In 2008, I was only a youngster and I’ve grown little by little since then. But the big stage races chew you up. You journalists see how thin and tired we are after a grand tour, and mentally too, it wouldn’t be easy to do both.”
After opting to forgo the defence of his Giro crown in 2014 in order to focus on the Tour, Nibali gives the impression that he would like to return to the corsa rosa next year, but striking a compromise with his Astana stable-mate Fabio Aru could prove a sticking point. Aru rode to a surprising podium finish at this year’s Giro and followed that up with a fine display at the Vuelta, and the young Sardinian seems likely to enjoy increased responsibility in 2015.
“A team like Astana has two groups for stage races. One is designed around Aru and the other around me, so it’s normal that the riders are divided to allow the team to do both races on top form,” Nibali said. “Clearly if I do the Giro, it would become a little bit more difficult for Aru, because I go there, it will certainly be to do my best.”
Astana manager Alexandre Vinokourov has the more pressing concern of ensuring the team remains in the WorldTour for 2015 following a recent spate of positive tests, but Nibali hinted that the Kazakh would prefer to see his two Italian leaders follow separate programmes next season.
“Vino certainly says no to the idea of me doing all three grand tours,” Nibali said. “There’s a possibility I could do both the Giro and the Tour, but that’s not easy either because he knows he’s got a rider like Aru and he needs space to grow as well. So he might want us to do one big stage race apiece.
“For the Giro-Tour double, we’ll have to see. We’ll talk about it at the next training camp and it’s not going to be an easy decision.”
Nibali raised an eyebrow when told that Chris Froome had already cast doubt on his participation in the 2015 Tour due to the absence of a long time trial – “It’s hard to make plans now, you need to reflect on things and see how all the courses weigh up,” he said – and he duly listed the Sky man alongside Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) as his chief rivals for the yellow jersey.
Broadly speaking, Nibali declared himself pleased with the route presented in Paris on Wednesday, reckoning that it was similar in spirit to the parcours on which he claimed overall victory last July. “It’s a nice Tour, more or less along the lines of 2014 in that it’s a tough course and you can’t take anything for granted, right from the first week,” he said. “We’ll certainly have wind in Brittany, and the final week will be very tough with all the summit finishes.
“Maybe the course is missing a long time trial and I think that’s maybe a bit for the French riders who perhaps aren’t specialists, although they are still developing. Riders like Bardet, Barguil and especially Thibaut Pinot will like this course.”
Not surprisingly, given his display en route to Arenberg this year, Nibali welcomed the presence of cobblestones on the Tour route, with some 13 kilometres of pavé set to feature on the road to Cambrai on stage 4. He warned, however, that history would not necessarily repeat itself.
“I liked the pavé a lot this year, but I won’t undervalue it because there are always difficulties in that stage. I’ll need to do a recon,” he said. “But I’m glad it’s in. I think it has a place in the cycling of today. We’ve seen it often at the Giro d’Italia with the strade bianche, so why not cobbles in the Tour too?”
Nibali will certainly hope that there is no repeat of the history of 2008, when the Astana team, then the parish of defending champion Alberto Contador, was denied a berth in the Tour de France due to its dubious doping record – namely, Alexandre Vinokourov’s positive test of 2007 and the subsequent hiring of Johan Bruyneel as team manager.
With Vinokourov since installed as general manager, history seems a nightmare from which the Kazakh squad can never quite awake. Following the recent positive tests for EPO of Maxim and Valentin Iglisnkiy, as well as the doping case of stagiaire Ilya Davidenok, the UCI Licence Commission will now review Astana’s place in the WorldTour, and Nibali’s mulling over the pros and cons of a Giro-Tour double could yet prove to be moot.
“It’s a case that’s isolated to one family and unfortunately we’re paying the consequences for that as riders,” Nibali said of the Iglinskiy positives. “But we’re trying to defend ourselves and show that our word counts for something. We’re not happy as riders and neither are our sponsors, nor anybody to do with the team. We’ll try to defend ourselves and I think Astana will do that legally as well.
“As for the most recent case of Davidenok, he doesn’t belong to Astana Pro Team. He rides for Astana Continental, which has a different management. It’s a different situation. I don’t know what more to say that than, but certainly hard measures will be taken.”