As befits a nation of polyglots, the Dutch fans making merry around the finish area after the opening time trial of the Tour de France in Utrecht were able to hail Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) in his own language as he soft-pedalled past.
“Bravissimo Squalo!” one boisterous local shouted repeatedly as he tried to keep pace with Nibali in order to take a selfie with the defending champion. Such are the downsides of the Tour in the smartphone era.
At that point, Nibali was himself trying to understand where his performance – 22nd on the stage, 43 seconds down on winner Rohan Dennis (BMC) – had placed him in relation to his principal rivals for final overall victory.
“I don’t know the times but the sensations were good,” Nibali told reporters at the finish line. On arrival at the Astana team bus, his coach Paolo Slongo was able to inform him that he had gained time on the other members of the Tour’s Big Four.
Nibali’s display put him 9 seconds clear of Chris Froome (Sky), 15 up on Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and 18 ahead of Nairo Quintana (Movistar). Of the outsiders, only Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and Tejay van Garderen (BMC) fared better, and only by two seconds.
“I didn’t know what to say at the finish but now that I’ve seen the times I can say that I’m happy with my performance,” Nibali told reporters after he had showered and changed aboard the bus, though, as always, he was cautious in his appraisal of the bigger picture. “The Tour is still long, we’ll keep our feet on the ground.
“Of the GC guys, the only one who did better than me was Thibaut Pinot, who put in a wonderful time trial, two seconds better than me and he gained on the others as well. We knew he was in good condition.
“In any case, it was important to do a good time to try and have a good position for the team car in the coming days and especially on the pavé.”
The long-range forecast for this Tour suggested a heatwave to hit France in July, but few would have expected the temperatures to be so high for one of the most northerly starts in the race’s history. The mercury rose to the mid-30s on Saturday afternoon, however, and even the Sicilian Nibali admitted that the conditions had affected him.
“It’s certainly been very hot today and over the past few days, and that change in temperature could have influenced things,” he said. “It’s irritated me a bit. With heat like this you sometimes have the sensation that you can’t breathe properly but in the end, if I look at what the other overall contenders did, I think we all more or less broke even, finishing within 20 seconds of each other.”
Nibali wore an ice jacket as he performed his cool-down after the stage, and his coach Slongo explained that had also tailored his warm-up to the conditions. There were shades of Jan Ullrich in Cap Découverte about Nibali’s decision to ride on the rollers for just 25 minutes rather than his usual 50, while Slongo felt that the result augured well for the three weeks to come.
“Everybody went full-on today so to gain a few seconds on your direct rivals shows that Vincenzo’s going well,” Slongo said. “Maybe you can’t make a direct comparison with Quintana, because he isn’t maybe a specialist, but you can compare Nibali with Froome and Contador, and you can see that he’s done well today.”
Boom and MPCC rules
As this Tour dawned, Nibali and Astana faced heat of a different kind, with Lars Boom returning a low cortisol level in a pre-race test. According to the rules of the Movement for Credible Cycling – of which Astana is, for now at least, still a member – Boom should have been withdrawn from the race and rested for a minimum of eight days.
On being informed by the UCI that it was too late to replace Boom with reserve Alessandro Vanotti, however, Astana decided to eschew MPCC rules and field the Dutchman. Not for the first time, the divergence between the UCI’s anti-doping rules and the MPCC’s additional, voluntary measures has come to the fore at the beginning of a Grand Tour.
“I think it’s right [that Boom started] because this morning Brian Cookson came to the hotel and he said that according to the UCI rules he could start,” Nibali said. “I do think we need some way of unifying all of the rules. If the UCI is the primary governing body of cycling, then I think we had to follow their rules.”
After LottoNL-Jumbo, Bardiani-CSF, Southeast and Lampre-Merida, Astana are the latest team to ignore the MPCC’s rules once affected by them directly. In the past, however, the Kazakhstani squad had shown greater commitment to the movement's principles, including at the 2013 Vuelta a España, when they agreed not to treat Nibali with cortisone after he suffered a wasp sting above his eye.
“My face was unrecognisable and I couldn’t decide whether to go home or not,” Nibali said. “In the end, I said I’d keep going and the swelling went down a bit, but it’s clear that more precise and clearer rules are needed. That’s not a polemic or anything, but the right decision was made by the UCI.”