Astana leader relaxed before the Grand Départ
Vincenzo Nibali and his Astana teammates Jakob Fuglsang and Lieuwe Westra were the penultimate team to hold their pre-race press conference in Leeds, as the rain poured down and the hours to the start of the Tour de France counted down.
Of all the overall contenders Nibali attracted the least media attention but the Sicilian seemed the most relaxed. He refuted a suggestion that this was the most important start to a Grand Tour in his career.
"This is an important moment but there have been others. I'd put it at the same level as last year's Giro d'Italia. There's a lot of pressure and the levels high but it's the same as the Giro," Nibali said calmly.
"I don’t have a problem getting to sleep at night due to the pressure. I don’t think I have to prove anything. I've always done well and been consistent in Grand Tours. If I haven’t won, I've almost always been in the top three. This Tour will be important but isn’t my last Grand Tour."
Nibali is arguably the third favourite behind Chris Froome (Team Sky) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and he would accept a possible final result behind them in Paris. However he will be riding to win.
"I wouldn't want to accept third place but if we consider it's the Tour de France, with some special campioni here and the best riders in the world in action, then third would be a good result," he said.
"I think it's difficult to say who is the absolute favourite between Froome and Contador. They're both great riders. Perhaps Contador has more experience. For sure it’ll be a big battle and there will be other contenders. It will also depend on what Rodriguez, Valverde and Costa do too. There will be surprises.
"I think we've got a good team to back me. We've worked well for this Tour de France and I think we've got a good chance to do well. We've do well in the most recent races and the last win at the Italian championships has given me and the whole team a lot of confidence."
Closing the fitness gap to Froome and Contador
Nibali raced against Froome and Contador at the Critérium du Dauphiné but struggled to be competitive in the French stage race. He pointed out that he started the race only six days after a big block of training at altitude on Mount Teide. He has spent a further 12 days at altitude in the Italian Dolomites after the Dauphiné, fine-tuning his fitness with his Astana teammates.
"After the final training camp in the Dolomites I feel good. I'd say I'm about the same as last year, when I won the Giro d'Italia," he suggested.
"I hope to be up there and fight with them. Froome pushes a crazy gear when he attacks and Contador seems able to go with him. But I think I've got a good chance of doing well. The level is very high but I hope to be up there and fight for it. The Tour is tough, you can know the route in detail but anything can happen. It'll be a hard race every day."
Nibali hopes to close the gap on his rivals thanks to his ability to improvise attacks and take advantage of difficult situations and testing descents.
"My instinctive character is favoured by the hard stages in this year's race," he said.
"The Yorkshire stages are hard and even the finale of stage one is technical. There are several difficult stages, including La Planche des Belles Filles, Hautacam and even the final time trial will all be important and shape the race.
"I've never raced on the pavé but I know how to ride my bike. But I've raced in tough conditions in the Giro, in the snow for example, but the cobbles will be different. We'll need to ride united as a team."
The wrong tricolore jersey
Lastly, Nibali shrugged off the polemics in Italy about his new Italian national champion's jersey.
Instead of being in the iconic green, white and red, it is largely Astana blue, with just the colours of the Italian flag across his chest. The Italian flag has the colours vertically but as many have pointed out, with horizontal colours on his jersey makes Nibali look like the Hungarian national champion.
"I don’t really understand all the polemics. Other teams hand riders have done similar things. Look at Peter Sagan, nobody really knows he's the Slovakian champion," Nibali said with a very Italian shrug of the shoulders.
"I'd prefer a classic Italian tricolore jersey but our sponsors have made an important investment in the team and so it's right that their logo and colours are shown too. A sponsor, Air Astana, was taken off the jersey to add the Italian colours. It's not my decision, it's up to the UCI and the Italian Federation to decide things and they're happy with the current jersey."
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