In the rarefied atmosphere inhabited by defending Tour de France champions, the effect of any stray words so often seems to be amplified. When Astana's Vincenzo Nibali rhetorically enquired of Nairo Quintana’s whereabouts during an exchange with journalists last month, he hardly anticipated that his words would become headline news 48 hours before the Grand Départ. Such is the hyper-reality of life after the maillot jaune.
As in 2013, Quintana took a lengthy break from racing ahead of the Tour, preferring to spend almost two months training at altitude at home in Colombia between the Tour de Romandie and the Route du Sud. Concerns have been raised in the past about the frequency of out-of-competition blood tests in Colombia, but speaking on Friday afternoon, Quintana said that he had been tested on at least five occasions in his home country in the past year.
During his final pre-Tour press conference just beforehand, Nibali had been at pains to douse the flames of any potential controversy, looking to avoid any diplomatic incident with one of the other heads of state at this race when he responded on two occasions to questions from Colombian reporters on the matter.
“I’m sorry if Quintana was angry or offended. My intention was not to speak badly of Colombia, which is a wonderful country with a lot of great riders who are riding very strongly,” Nibali said. “It’s just that there was no news of Quintana and we were all asking ourselves about where he was, but not in a malicious way. We knew that Alberto was training in Livigno and where all the other contenders were and so on, I just meant ‘let’s see where Quintana is',"
Nibali was later asked if he felt that all of principal Tour contenders had faced testing of the same rigour in the months leading up to the race. “I don’t know if we’re all controlled as much as one another. I can only speak for myself. I’m tested a lot by WADA and the UCI and I can only say that they do great work,” he said.
Even before this nascent controversy, Nibali’s year had not been bereft of incident due to the apparent sword of Damocles that hung over his Astana team’s WorldTour licence for much of the spring. The positive doping controls of Maxim and Valentin Iglinskiy last year, as well as a trio of cases on the Astana Continental team, triggered an audit from the University of Lausanne and eventually prompted the UCI to request its Licence Commission to revoke Astana’s top flight status. They finally found in Astana’s favour in April.
“We had problems at the start of the season and I think there was a lot made of it thanks to the media but nothing ever came of it,” Nibali said. “There was a lot of talk about the licence but it was never revoked. We were called in by the ISSUL auditors to talk about the team and we met with them again during the last Dauphiné. They’re following the team closely and a lot of riders, like Jakob [Fuglsang] and me, have spoken with them about our training programmes.
“It’s clear that we’ve paid for two riders who used doping last year and we can’t personally be held to account for their faults. We’ve looked to continue working calmly and we’re at this Tour de France with the right motivation, looking to ride well and enjoy ourselves.”
Another polemica reared its head following Nibali’s victorious ride at the Italian Championships road race in Turin last weekend, when he voiced his disappointment at his friend and longstanding gregario Alessandro Vanotti’s decision not to line out in support of him. It later emerged that Vanotti had been omitted from Astana’s Tour squad and it is understood that his decision to ride for Italy at the inaugural European Games in Baku two weeks ago had done little to help his cause.
“Vanotti pulled out of the Italian Championships and there was one extra rider in the pre-selection for the Tour de France. Another rider with better condition was simply selected in his place,” Nibali said.
Looking to double up
And in the middle of the various rows, of course, a bike race is about to break out. Nibali sets out from Utrecht on Saturday as one of four principal favourites for overall victory, alongside Chris Froome (Sky), Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Quintana. Just like 12 months ago, he reaches July after a low-key start to the season but with morale bolstered by signs of life at the Dauphiné and a national title win on the eve of the Tour.
“This year, my condition is in line with last year,” Nibali said. “There’ll be big expectations on me as defending champion but there are riders who have done more than me so far this season, like Froome winning the Dauphiné, but I’ll play my cards day by day and see how I go.”
In 2014, Nibali won the first of his four stages on the road to Sheffield on the second day, and placed a significant down payment on overall victory on the cobbles three days later. Of the four galacticos vying for the top step of the podium in Paris this time out, he is the man tipped to benefit from the Tour’s treacherous opening week, which includes another jaunt over the pavé on stage 4.
“We’ve talked a lot about this first week, which has some tough finishes, like the Mur de Huy. But we’ll just try to ride like we’ve always done and the Tour is always difficult from the start in any case,” Nibali said.
One of the compelling aspects of this year’s Tour is that the four main contenders – three previous winners and Quintana, who placed second in his lone appearance to date – would, at least at this remove, all undoubtedly view anything less than final overall victory as a disappointment. Nibali placed the challenge of a repeat victory in some perspective, however, by reminding reporters that only one Italian in history – Ottavia Bottechia some 90 years ago – has ever managed to land successive Tours.
“I wouldn’t settle for a second place but in Italian cycling, you have to go back to Bottechia to find an Italian who won two Tours in a row,” Nibali said. “That makes you understand how difficult it is to win the Tour de France.”
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