Vincenzo Nibali continued to stay focused while racing but relaxed off the bike at the Tour de France, showing little sign of fatigue or pressure during his first rest day press conference as race leader.
The Sicilian is so keen to take the Tour de France day by day that he could not remember the name of the next mountain finish in the race. He answered questions with a hint of monotony, and only in Italian, but remained calm and collected despite sitting in front of a swath of television cameras and journalists in an open-air car park near his hotel. He had ridden for two hours in the morning with his teammates before facing the media.
When answering questions, he quickly refuted the idea that the Tour de France was over due to his significant lead on Richie Porte (Team Sky) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), or that the loss of Chris Froome and Alberto Contador could lessen his eventual victory. He also talked about his pride and hopes of being the next Italian after Marco Pantani to win the Tour de France.
"It's true, in the race I've got to stay focused and concentrated, but then I switch off a little when I'm off the bike," he said. "But we’ve prepared for the Tour de France and so we've got to be ready for anything. The Tour is the Tour, it's bigger but it's also the same as the other Grand Tours I've ridden and won."
"To be honest the stress of the race has been the hardest thing. On the stage with the pavé it was hugely stressful to stay at the front and avoid the crashes. Fortunately I had good support from the team. Even having yellow eased the stressed because we raced at the front."
"The Tour is not over, not by a long way. There are still a lot of stages to go before the finish. Anything can happen, there can surprises every day and there are big rivals like Porte and Valverde. They're the toughest ones. We've got to stay calm, stay tranquillo and study the situation. When something seems easy, sometimes it can get very difficult. I'm tranquil because the team is solid. So far we've managed the race well so far."
Contador and Froome
Nibali seemed genuinely sorry that Alberto Contador has crashed out of the Tour de France and revealed he saw Contador pass him but laid off two metres to stay safe.
"I'm not happy about what happened to Alberto and to Chris. Starting the first climbs with them both in the race would have been better and more spectacular for everyone. The level was very high here and I felt good yesterday; we rode to win and I'm genuinely sorry for Alberto and Froome, they both sacrificed time to be at their best for the Tour. But there are other rivals here and its not only about the last two big winner, there are lots of important riders."
"This is the Tour de France and crashes are part of the game. I was behind Alberto on the descent. He'd overtaken me. I don’t know what happened, maybe he hit a hole or a stone but he went down hard and I tried to avoid him. I kept two metres between him and me and so avoided the worst."
On Porte and Valverde
Nibali talked about his rivals logically, in the order of the general classification. He knows Porte well because they both raced for amateur teams in Tuscany, if at different times. He even has a kind word for the French riders currently the top ten overall.
"For sure I've got to watch Pinot and Bardet, they've a bit behind but not by that much," he warned.
"On yesterday's stage Kwiatkowski gained more than four minutes at one point and that's an example of what can happen. They're all well prepared to do well at the Tour. I'll never underestimate anyone. I did that at Vuelta (in 2013), we underestimated Horner, and he went on to win."
"My lead is good but if I can increase it, I'll do it. I don’t honestly remember the name of the next mountain finish but why not there?" he said, suddenly getting serious and firing a warning shot across the bows of his rivals.
With a lead of 2:23 on Richie Porte and 2:47 on Alejandro Valverde, Nibali knows they will have to attack him, too.
"These first 10 days have been hard; there was no prologue, no transfer days. We're here at the rest day and I think it's important for everyone at the race," he said.
"I don’t think they'll sit and wait. Valverde is here to do the GC and so is Porte. Richie is a good rider but it all depends on how he is going. He was good at the Dauphiné and worked hard for Froome. The day that Contador got the jersey, he did a massive turn and there were only four of us left on his wheel. That's how strong he is."
When asked to explain who is Vincenzo Nibali to the million of French spectators who perhaps only watch the Tour de France, Nibali did not slip into a third-person monologue, but did reveal his national pride. He also confirmed his respect for the late Marco Pantani, the last Italian to win the Tour de France.
"Who am I?" he asked with a laugh.
"In France I once won a big race called the GP Plouay (his first win as a professional in 2006). I'm a good stage race rider and not only that. I know how to ride my bike, how to attack and I think I've improved gradually and gone on to win bigger and bigger races. Two yeas ago I went up against Wiggins and Froome despite their being a long TT. Now I'm here."
Nibali is front page news in the Italian media after retaking the yellow jersey. He has knocked other sports from the front pages and is entertaining the Italian tifosi as they enjoy their summer holidays. He wears his Italian national champion's jersey with pride.
"I'm happy to represent Sicily and Italy and to be fighting for the win," he said.
"I've won the Vuelta and the Giro and in the last few years, I've also been on podium at the Tour. I'm trying to go for the big one but I know that the Tour de France finishes in Paris."
He also knows his cycling history.
"For me as an Italian, it’s a huge privilege to be asked about Bartali. I grew up watching documentaries about the big riders an the big wins of Gimondi, Bartali and Coppi. We talk less these days but they’re all in the encyclopedia of cycling, just as like Hinault and Bobet are too. They've written the history of cycling."
"Because of Pantani's life story, it'd be a huge honour to follow on from him. Before coming here I couldn't attend a presentation about him but his mum gave me one of his yellow jersey and I have it home. If all goes well, I'll go and see Marco (his grave) after the Tour."