By this point, Vincenzo Nibali has probably been asked as many questions about doping questions as questions about doping itself. Such is the lot of the maillot jaune of the Tour de France in an era of uncertainty.
At Saint-Étienne on Thursday, Nibali was asked to justify his decision to ride for an Astana team with a lengthy rap sheet of past doping offences. At Risoul on Saturday, Nibali was asked about the 2009 allegation – later retracted – that he had been coached by Dr. Michele Ferrari.
On each occasion, Nibali responded at length. After successfully defending the overall lead on the road to Nîmes on Sunday, the Italian said that he's not irritated by doping questions, acknowledging that they are a natural consequence of cycling's insalubrious recent – and not so recent – past.
"These questions are there because we're paying the price for what's happened in years gone by, so I'm trying to respond in the best way possible," Nibali said. "I was asked these questions at the Giro last year, too, and I looked to respond as best I could. Now we're here at the Tour, questions have been asked and I've tried to give the best responses and clarification.
"I've always been a standard-bearer for anti-doping. People ask these questions because they want to understand my story, my past and how I've developed year-by-year. With all the wins and my progress in the big tours, I've always improved step-by-step."
Italian handles crosswinds with diligence
Out on the road, at least, Nibali seems to have answered every question already, as testified by his haul to date. He has spent all but three of the Tour's fifteen stages to date in the yellow jersey, has claimed three stage victories and holds a buffer of 4:37 minutes in the overall standings as the race reaches its second rest day.
Nibali dealt quickly with another poser en route to Nîmes. The Tour's visits to France's southeast – and, particularly, to the Bouches-du-Rhône and Gard departments – typically sees the peloton buffeted by crosswinds. When BMC hit the front en masse in a bid to split the field with 60 kilometres remaining, it briefly looked as though history might repeat itself, but Nibali responded in prima persona, by coolly making his way to the head of the bunch and nestling among the men in red and black.
"The wind was quite persistent at some points, there were a few gusts that blew us across the road," Nibali said. "There was one point where we turned into a crosswind and I had to be ready because I didn't want to get caught out in echelons. There was a move from BMC for a few kilometres alright, but they sat up soon afterwards."
When Nibali lost the Vuelta a España to Chris Horner on the final weekend last September, he blamed his defeat in part on his lengthy sojourn in the red jersey of overall leader. Over the course of the three weeks, he spent some 13 days in red. The accumulated hours lost to press conferences and podium protocol cut into his recovery time, while the responsibility of controlling the peloton fell to his Astana team for most of the race.
It is now two weeks since Nibali first pulled on the maillot jaune at this Tour, following his canny attack on the road to Sheffield on stage 2, but while he said that he had drawn lessons from his Vuelta experience, the two situations were very different.
"At the Vuelta, I learned how to manage the race in a better way, and with the team, too, which is very important," Nibali said. "But the Vuelta came at a different time of the year, a time when I already had a Giro d'Italia at a very high level in my legs – and I wasn't as strong as I'd been at the Giro. It's a bit different here. I've come here with better preparation. I aimed to have my first peak of the year at the Tour de France and that's how its worked out."