Vincenzo Nibali began the day already out of the hunt for Tour de France victory but still very much in the headlines. Such is the life of a defending champion.
Astana general manager Alexandre Vinokourov has not hidden his disappointment at Nibali’s performance at this Tour, telling Thursday’s Gazzetta dello Sport, for instance, that he had “the obligation to finish in Paris and honour the jersey” and vowing that he would send the Sicilian to the Vuelta a España.
Spanish sports daily AS went even further, speculating that Vinokourov’s dismay was such that he was prepared to dispense with Nibali’s services at the end of this season, one year before his contract expires. That report was swiftly denied by Nibali’s agent Alex Carera, who told Tuttobici: “I spoke to Alexandre this morning and he completely denied it. He told me that in two years Vincenzo has given a lot to the Astana team.”
Around the same time, Nibali was providing a response of his own out on the road on stage 12 of the Tour de France, attacking on the rain-soaked haul to the finish at Plateau de Beille. His defiant move was soon reeled in, but the Italian champion had the wherewithal to stay with the yellow jersey group for the first time on this Tour and move up to 9th overall in the process.
“Vino said that to motivate me, to bring out a bit of nastiness in me,” Nibali said after the stage of Vinokourov’s harsh assessment. “We spoke ourselves afterwards. Maybe he thought I could give a bit more but I’m human, it’s normal. Like I said, I haven’t missed a podium since 2010.”
That is not strictly true – Nibali placed 7th at the 2011 Vuelta a España – but the point remains an entirely valid one. Since finishing 3rd at the 2010 Giro d’Italia, Nibali’s consistency in the Grand Tours has been remarkable. Nibali has won three of his past eight Grand Tours and finished on the podium in a further four.
At this juncture a place in the top three in Paris seems unlikely, though not impossible – he is 4:38 off third place – but Nibali was even-handed in his analysis of his relative failure at this Tour, reasoning that he hasn’t become a bad rider overnight.
“There are perfect seasons and seasons that don’t go well,” Nibali said. “I could give you the example of a rider, a great champion, who I admire a lot: Cadel Evans. He was a great rider who had a great career but he had some years that weren’t super but he remained a champion.”
Despite the miserable conditions atop Plateau de Beille, Nibali stopped and talked to reporters through chattering teeth immediately on crossing the finish line. After struggling in the heat on La Pierre-Saint-Martin, he found more amenable conditions in the deluge in the Ariège.
“It was a very hard day but my sensations were a bit better than they had been so far,” he said. “I tried to hang tough, maybe with my head more than anything else. At a certain point, I thought I’d have a bit of freedom because I was so far down, but instead they chased me after me.”
Nibali attacked from the yellow jersey group with 6 kilometres still to climb, shortly after an earlier move from Alberto Contador had been shut down, but he too was shut down after Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) countered.
“It all kicked off behind too because I think Valverde was trying to make the race for Quintana, and the others responded,” Nibali said. “I was just hoping somebody would bridge across and join my attack. When it all kicked off after that I could only follow. But we’ll see day by day, I felt a bit better today in the rain.”