Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) returns to the Tour de France with the memories of last year’s crash on L’Alpe d’Huez and fractured vertebrae still fresh in his mind, but the huge cheer from the crowd at Thursday’s teams presentation in Brussels, along with the emotions of returning to Belgium, made him happy to be back.
"Last year’s crash on L’Alpe d’Huez was still in my mind and so I hadn’t realised this was my eighth Tour, but the huge cheer I got during the teams presentation made me realise that it’s great to be at the Tour. The cheer means everyone expects something from me," Nibali explained after being on stage in central Brussels.
Nibali is the most successful Grand Tour rider in this year’s Tour de France, having won all three Grand Tours and the Tour de France in 2014. Yet, after targeting the Giro d’Italia this year and finishing second behind Richard Carapaz, he is playing down expectations for the next three weeks.
"I’m stuck between a rock and hard place,” he explained.
"My fear is that if I ride for the GC, I’ll be okay at the start of the Tour but then I might fade in the third week. I might do okay in the GC but then be unable to win a stage. Sometimes it’s better to focus on one thing. A stage win at the Tour de France is a big deal - two or three even more so."
Nibali revealed he is ready to sit up and lose 30 minutes in the overall classification so he can have the freedom to go into attacks, without worrying the real overall contenders. Stage 6 to La Planche des Belles Filles and the steep finish will reveal Nibali’s form and his eventual goals.
"I’ll understand my form and my potential at the Tour as the road goes by. La Planche des Belles Filles is a hard finish and will make things very clear," Nibali explained.
"After targeting the Giro d’Italia and hardly racing in recent weeks, I don’t know just how good I am. My coach Paolo Slongo might be more convinced about my form than I am but he looks at the numbers - I listen to my body and my sensations. We’ll see what happens."
'Really sorry' about Froome’s crash
Movistar manager Eusebio Unzué suggested that the Tour de France without Chris Froome - who sustained serious injuries in a crash at the Critérium du Daupiné - is like a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Nibali agrees, and doubts that Egan Bernal can step up and handle the pressure of leadership in the Tour de France.
"I was really sorry about Froome's crash. Chris is a fellow rider but is also a father and husband, like all of us, so you can’t not be affected by his crash. But he’s got the determination to fight back. I’m sure he’ll make a full recovery.
"The Tour will be very different with out Chris. Bernal is strong but also very young, so we’ll have to see how he handles the pressure for 21 days. Fuglsang is the outsider, he’s having a perfect season. Bardet and Pinot look ready too and Urán is always at his best."
Nibali lined up on stage at the teams presentation with his Bahrain-Merida teammates. He has Rohan Dennis to power the squad in Sunday’s team time trial, with Damiano Caruso to help him in the mountains. Matej Mohoric, Dylan Teuns and Sonny Colbrelli will also have the freedom to target stages.
Nibali is the Bahrain-Merida figurehead but in less than a month he is expected to reveal he will ride for Trek-Segafredo in 2020. The Segafredo owner Massimo Zanetti has already confirmed Nibali’s arrival but Nibali is staying loyal to his current employer during the Tour de France.
"We’ve got to wait a little bit longer, a month or so, before we can talk about the future," he concluded.