When Vincenzo Nibali won the 2014 Tour de France, everything seemed to go his way; he won an early stage, took the yellow jersey, dominated the cobbles and extended his lead as his big rivals crashed out and fell away. This year, everything, including his Astana team manager Alexandre Vinokourov, seems to be going against him, making every stage, even the transfer stage 13 across the south of France to Rodez, a struggle.
The Italian finished seventh on the hectic uphill, between race leader Chris Froome (Team Sky) and long-term rivals Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), seven seconds behind winner Greg van Avermaet (BMC). However, while his rivals tried to survive in the scorching heat in the peloton, Nibali had to dig deep and chase back to the peloton late into the stage after a double puncture.
“Both my tyres exploded. That’s something that has never happened to me,” he explained after a long chase with several teammates because the peloton had split in the infernal crosswinds.
“We touched 44C at one point. The only time I’ve raced in conditions like that were at the Vuelta. It was absurdly hot. But saying that I seemed to feel better and I want to carry on in the Tour without any extra pressure on my shoulders. The Tour hasn’t gone as I hoped, the overall classification is out of the window but I just hope to do something in the next few days.”
There have been rumours that Nibali had been close to throwing in the towel, quitting the Tour and heading home, perhaps to prepare for the Vuelta a España. However, Vinokourov has made it clear he expects Nibali to stay in the race and suffer, earning his reported €4 million-per-season salary by riding on and reaching Paris.
Nibali’s hopes and ambitions for the rest of the Tour de France hinge on the results of a series of blood tests the Italian carried out on Thursday before stage 12 to Plateau de Beille. Initial results indicate there is nothing seriously wrong but a few more days are needed to understand if his form has been affected by some kind of infection or virus.
“I don’t feel any specific symptoms. I just don’t feel strong, it’s as if I’m lacking some strength,” Nibali explained to Cyclingnews.
“Physically I’m fine, even if my numbers here don’t match up to what I was able to do in training before the Tour. I’m trying to find an explanation but it’s not easy to work out in the middle of the Tour. We hope to have a better idea in a few days time.”
Nibali has dismissed Vinokourov’s suggestion that “something has broken in his head” but preferred not to reveal his true feeling about his demanding boss.
Vinokourov and the Astana team want Nibali to ride the Vuelta, alongside fellow team leader Fabio Aru. However, a growing rivalry between the two Italians means that is unlikely to happen. Nibali does not seem too keen to face another Grand Tour just a few weeks after suffering so much at the Tour de France and Aru is unlikely to want him overshadowing his hopes of winning the final Grand Tour of the season.
“I’ve won it once and went close on a second occasion, finishing second in 2013. It’s an important race but for now I’m focused on finishing the Tour de France, then afterward, we’ll see how things are and decide if I ride the Vuelta or not,” Nibali said.
“I want to take things day by day. I’ve lost a significant chunk of time but yesterday (on the climb to Plateau de Beille) went well and I was able to finish up there with the others but there are still a lot of mountain stages and a lot of racing to go.”