Nibali cautious but confident of Tour de France podium chances

Vincenzo Nibali on Thursday shrugged off his indifferent form in the run-up to the Tour de France, reaffirming his general classification ambitions.

Flanked by teammates Ivan Basso and Peter Sagan at Liquigas-Cannondale's pre-Tour press conference in Liège, Belgium, Nibali said that the 14 minutes he lost to Bradley Wiggins at the Dauphiné in June will count for nothing over the next three weeks. Nonetheless Nibali acknowledged that Wiggins is "the man to beat".

"I took ten days off after the Classics, then came back at the Tour of California. The Dauphiné was just another stepping-stone towards the Tour. Now I'm here I feel that the work I've done has paid off. I was in the mix last week at the Italian national championships and my legs feel good," Nibali said.

On Wiggins' peerless form so far this year, the Sicilian was magnanimous but also bullish.

"Yes, Wiggins and the Sky team we've seen so far this year are extremely strong, but not every race is the same. There are also a lot of other riders that we shouldn't discount: Gesink, Van den Broeck, and also Menchov, who people shouldn't ignore."

After a disappointing fifth place in the Giro d'Italia, lieutenant de luxe Ivan Basso isn't among many pundits' fancied riders. The two-time Giro champion agreed today that Wiggins deserves his favourite's billing, while also backing Nibali to score what would be his first Tour de France podium finish at age 27.

"He can definitely believe in his podium chances… As for Wiggins, you shouldn't just look at what he's done this year, but also at what he did in 2011 after crashing out of the Tour. He went to the Vuelta with very little preparation and finished on the podium. You can't take anything for granted at the Tour, though. Wiggins has all of the requisite qualities…but it's a very hard race to predict."

Where others are overawed, the third prong of Liquigas's trident, Peter Sagan, could not have looked more relaxed about making his Tour debut. Sagan has chalked up 13 wins already this season, impressing everyone. Well, almost everyone; earlier this week in London, Mark Cavendish argued that Sagan's four stage wins in the Tour of Switzerland had come against a relatively weak field of sprinters.

That notion clearly hasn't gained much traction in Liège: one journalist put it to Sagan today that he could potentially win fifteen stages. Sagan smiled and replied that, "It might go well, but it might not, in which case we have other riders."

One exercise in which he definitely could make a splash is Saturday's prologue, after his victory in the equivalent stage of the Tour of Switzerland. "That's an objective," he confirmed today. He added that he would recce the closing kilometres of stage 1 to Seraing at some point on Friday.

On his chances of thwarting Cavendish's green jersey title defence – and of outgunning the Manxman in a head-to-head sprint – Sagan sounded confident rather than defiant. "The green jersey could be within my reach but we'll have to see. As for beating Cavendish, I've never said that's impossible."

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