On the eve of the most robust test to date of his credentials as a prospective Tour de France winner, Astana's Vincenzo Nibali was given his first taste of the wider responsibilities such a position entails.
Nibali carries the yellow jersey into the Alps during stage 13 on Friday, but at the Italian’s press conference in Saint-Étienne after stage 12, the emphasis was on the depths of his Astana team’s past rather than the heights to be scaled in the next two days.
Specifically, Nibali was asked to justify his decision to ride for a team managed by Alexandre Vinokourov, who tested positive for blood doping at the 2007 Tour, and Giuseppe Martinelli, who was Marco Pantani’s manager during an era of excess.
Nibali avoided mentioning Vinokourov directly but claimed that Astana had looked to restore its damaged image by investing heavily in building a group of Italian riders and staff. That Italian core, of course, includes Michele Scarponi, who has previously served bans for his links to Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes and Dr. Michele Ferrari, although last winter the team did at least opt out of signing Franco Pellizotti in order to adhere with MPCC policy.
"I don't know what to say about Martinelli, I can only say that we have a good relationship and it's maybe thanks to him that I came to a team like Astana," Nibali said. "Astana is a team that's invested a lot in an Italian group, precisely because they wanted to give it credibility and because they wanted to change the whole group.
"They didn't just choose me, they also brought in [long-term coach] Paolo Slongo. I'd like to remind everybody that I worked with him when I was 17-years-old in the national team, together with Antonio Fusi."
Unfortunately, the entourage that surrounds the professional peloton often seems the very embodiment of a famous line from William Faulkner: "the past is never dead – it's not even past." Even so, Nibali insisted that the current crop of riders are representatives of a different era.
"The mistakes that were made in the past were many and made by many riders, and it's good to leave everything in the past and look ahead with a new generation," Nibali said. "There are many new young riders and we need to give them space because they're showing that they really want to change cycling. We're showing it with the biological passport with the random tests at home, so we can't say that cycling today hasn't changed.
"Picking a team like Astana was certainly an important step for me as it gave me the chance to build a group to tackle the biggest races, like the Giro, the Tour and the Vuelta."
Nibali admitted that he was not surprised to be asked a question about doping, nor indeed, did he seem irritated during his lengthy response. "Yes, I think it's normal [to be asked]," he said. "I had the same questions at the Giro last year and in the past too at training camps. It's clearly a very hot topic but I think that it's also something that's part of the past.
"We still have some isolated incidents now because unfortunately, the mother of the imbecile is always pregnant. I can't be the spokesman for the whole peloton, certainly, but the goodwill to improve and do something more is certainly exceptional."
Italian joked about his pre-Tour weight loss struggle
Nibali hopes to be as well-prepared when the Tour tackles summit finishes at Chamrousse and Risoul in the next two days. The Sicilian had not reconnoitered either of the two Alpine stages, but he appeared confident of defending his overall lead into the second rest day. He currently sits 2:23 clear of Richie Porte (Team Sky).
"We'll look to manage the race as a team," he said. "We'll try to control things. It's not easy, because there are certainly rivals who'll try to attack me. We'll look to retain the jersey and if there's the chance to take a few more seconds, I'll go for it."
Nibali was able to joke, too, about his struggles to reach his ideal racing weight in the build-up to the Tour. The Sicilian revealed that he weighs "in theory, 64kg" at the Tour, but confessed that it had been a struggle to pare himself down.
"The team doctor always came to me with the pliers to check my body fat and he'd say 'Vincenzo, you need to work on it,'" Nibali smiled. "But little-by-little we managed to get down to this exceptional weight, which is the same weight I've had when I've had my biggest success like at the Giro and the Vuelta."
Nibali's body mass may indeed be the same, but the weight and responsibility of the maillot jaune, and all it symbolizes, seems rather heavier.
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