Vincenzo Nibali has hit out at Chris Froome and the WADA and UCI verdict that closed his salbutamol case, suggesting in his pre-Tour de France press conference that double standards were used when compared to similar cases in the past.
Nibali and Froome have clashed in the past, both in races and verbally. The Sicilian had said he respected Froome's right to race on while his salbutamol case was under consideration but his opinion has now changed dramatically after Froome was cleared of any wrongdoing.
Nibali revealed he was in his garage at home fixing his bike when his wife came to tell him the news that Froome had been cleared. If Froome had eventually been found guilty of doping, Nibali would have been crowned the winner of the 2017 Vuelta a Espana and might not have to face Froome at this year's Tour de France.
"We knew it could have been black or white. I could have had a Vuelta win but I didn't want to win it that way," Nibali said, calmly before his voice changed in tone and he expressed his frustration with Froome's drawn out case and the final verdict.
"I don't know why he was cleared, it's not very clear to everyone why he was cleared. We know there's a full written verdict but we've not seen why, in detail, he was cleared," Nibali said.
"I witnessed what [Diego] Ulissi went through because we're neighbours and friends. I saw it was a very difficult moment for him. I can only say that there's been a case of double standards in Froome's case."
Asked by Cyclingnews to explain what he meant, Nibali said: "Comparing it to Ulissi's case, one was banned and the other wasn't. I think the cases are the same. In fact one is worse than the other."
"The same product was involved: Ventolin; the circumstances were very similar, it was about one day. His level (of salbutamol) was very high, higher than Ulissi and even other riders. I don't know exactly why, so I can't say the reason. I just know that double standards have been used."
[The UCI issued a statement today clarifying that the case of Ulissi and compatriot Alessandro Petacchi were adjudicated under WADA standards that have since evolved, and by different agencies - Swiss Anti-Doping in the case of Ulissi and CAS for Petacchi -ed.]
Nibali can see one positive outcome of the Froome case.
"I think after this case and based on the previous cases, I think the rules will change. I really think so," he said.
Froome was booed by the partisan French crowd at the Tour de France team presentation on Thursday evening, sparking debate about if he might face similar aggression in the race.
Nibali made it clear that there's not much he and other riders can do to help Froome with potential crowd problems during the Tour de France.
"As riders, we don't feel we can do much to help him. Perhaps Chris can do something, I don't know… I don't think Chris cares about his rivals. That's the way they are," Nibali said, widening his thoughts to the rest of Team Sky.
Asked by Cyclingnews if other teams behaved in a similar way, Nibali was categorical.
"It's only them," he said.
Winning the Tour made a big difference to my career and my life
During a 30-minute press conference, Nibali refuted suggestions that he needs to channel some form of inner anger as inspiration to be at his best at the Tour de France.
"There's a bit of stress but that's it… maybe I'll be more angry in race," Nibali joked.
Nibali and Froome are the only previous winner of the Tour de France in this year's race. Both are 33 years old and both are multiple Grand Tour winners. There are a number of other serious contenders for overall victory but Nibali appears convinced that he can avoid the dangers of the first half of the race in northern France and then emerge in the Alps and Pyrenees. He is hoping to repeat his near-perfect race of 2014, which gave him a place in the very exclusive club of riders who have won all three Grand Tours.
"I know winning the Tour made a big difference to my career and my life. Nobody really considered me back in 2014 but that was OK, I felt good. Now it's different and people know that I can be dangerous. I know I'm respected because I can turn a race upside down. That's nice to know," Nibali said.
"This year I think my form is again good for the Tour. The final training camp in the Dolomites went well, we worked hard, doing the specific work that I needed to polish off my form and my weight is right. I'm ready to race.
Nibali always refuses to make predictions for major races and named Froome, Quintana and Bardet as a possible podium, excluding himself in an act of superstition.
"It's difficult to draw up a classification of the overall contender. There are a lot. There's Quintana, Landa, Valverde, Zakarin that nobody seems to be worrying about, there's Dumoulin, Yates, Porte, Bardet, Uran, Martin and there'll be a few surprises too," Nibali predicted.
"Having won the Tour gives you the experience to know how to handle things in a Grand Tour – Quintana has never won the Tour but he knows what to do. Knowing how to win the Tour makes a difference for sure, it's about managing the team and knowing how to use them."
Nibali has a simple race strategy, letting his team staff deal with the details on a daily basis.
"You need to divide a Grand Tour into weeks," he explains.
"You see how it goes in this first week, review things, then go into the mountains and decide how to take on your rivals. The final week is about managing your energy to see if you can attack or if you have to defend something."
"People have dismissed our team, especially for the team time trial but I think we'll surprise people, I think we can do well.
"We've got a good team, we've all worked hard for this race and so we're not here to mess around. We've got the Izagirre brothers who showed they're on form, for the mountains we've also got Pozzovivo who had a good Giro and Pellizotti, while for the flat stages we've got Koren, Colbrelli, with Haussler an expert for the cobbled stage."
"I've no need to be angry, indeed I feel relaxed and ready to race. I'm looking forward to seeing what happens in the next three weeks."