Vincenzo Nibali heads to Utrecht on Tuesday with the goal of winning a second consecutive Tour de France. If he manages to beat Alberto Contador, Nairo Quintana, Chris Froome and all the other overall contenders and reach Paris in the yellow jersey yet again, he will become only the second Italian since Ottavio Bottecchia to win back-to-back editions of the sport's biggest race.
Bottecchia won his Tours in 1925 and 1926, during the pioneering era of Grand Tour racing but was mysteriously killed just two years later. Back-to-back Tour success for Nibali would make him one of the greatest Italian Grand Tour riders of all time, certainly of his generation, after already winning the 2010 Vuelta a Espana and the 2013 Giro d’Italia. Not even Italian legends such as Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali won the Tour de France in consecutive years.
On Saturday Nibali smashed his way to a second consecutive Italian national title and so will again wear the red, white and green ‘tricolore’ colours on his Astana jersey and proudly fly the flag for Italy. Just like in 2014, the national road race was Nibali’s only victory before starting the Tour after a lacklustre first part to the season. Nibali showed plenty of panache in the spring and early summer but again failed to win, with the pressure apparently building on his shoulders and weighing on his mind.
Yet Nibali was on edge on Friday as he spoke to the media. He seemed angry about something and unsure of his form for the national championships and more worryingly for the Tour de France. He is nick-named ‘Lo Squalo di Messina’ – the Shark from Messina, and seemed to be fighting with a prey, reacting with violent swishes of his tail.
“It’s hasn’t been easy for me this year,” he said, with an unusual vein of anger in his voice. “At every race since I ridden since the Tour, everybody has always wanted a piece of me and everybody has always expected me to win. That put a lot of weight on me shoulders and I felt it. This season has been difficult so far, with lots of highs and lows but no real great moments.”
“I had a lot of distractions during the winter, I felt I never recovered from 2014 both physically and mentally. In the past I’ve had far better winters, rested up more and enjoyed a more relaxing holiday, then work on my base fitness in the gym and on the road. I tried to follow my usual training programme but never had a decent peak of form to be able to win something or even produce what I consider a satisfying ride.”
What a difference 24 hours makes