Any previous Tour de France winner will tell you that when it comes to defending your title one of the biggest battles is how you deal with pressure. The media commitments, the constant analysis and public doubts, eat away at your frayed reserves and all before a single pedal stroke in July.
However, it's a battle that Vincenzo Nibali is currently winning. The Italian hasn't won a single race this season, faced doubts over his team's future, felt Fabio Aru snapping at his heels and had to deal with the constant attention of his home media, but at a small gathering of journalists outside of Lyon during the Critérium du Dauphiné, Nibali appeared as relaxed as ever, telling those assembled that a second Tour win is not his only purpose.
"Now I have more experience and I know a lot more than I did back then but winning the Tour de France is not an obsession for me because obsession makes you tired," he says.
This July he will line-up as the Tour's defending champion, and with Chris Froome, Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana as challengers he faces the greatest test of his career so far. Last season he saw off Froome and Contador before the race reached the mountains, but in truth he looked capable of Tour success after an opening week that saw him take the race by the scruff of the neck.
"Every year is different and you can't compare," he says. "We came to the Dauphiné to get results and we've started to do that with the team time trial but this is just one step towards the Tour de France in July."
Nibali, it can be said, has forged his GC career as a rider who has made small incremental steps towards success. Whether it was his first early promise that was put on show at Liquigas or his breakthrough win at the Vuelta in 2010, he has matured at a natural pace. It's one of the reasons he heads towards this year's Tour with a level of assuredness many riders claim to have but whose behaviour and actions let them down.
He's at the Dauphine, he says, "to maybe win a stage, maybe see if there's something to aim for on GC, but to really check the sensations are where they should be." It's all so tranquillo and laid back.
"I'm here to maybe win a stage, or see GC but also to find answers on where my level is. This is good for me, my team, my trainer, for everyone. We've showed today that we've had strength in the time trial.
"To think about my contenders I think that I would put Quintana, Froome, and Contador at the same level but I'm not afraid of anybody. The level at the Tour will be very high. Take the Giro, for example, where we saw Contador win but he didn't win a single stage."
Contador is of course halfway through his holy grail quest of claiming the Giro and Tour de France double, a feat not completed since Marco Pantani in 1998. Nibali, for now, is concentrating on just the one Grand Tour but may revisit that approach in the coming years.
Nibali sporadically watched the Giro this year but saw enough of Contador's prowess to know that the Spaniard is at the top of his game.
"It's difficult to say something on the race though because you see maybe an hour or two. I was in Tenerife training so when I turned on the television I saw Contador climbing but not what's going on before that. The Giro didn't teach me anything new about him that I didn't already know. He got stronger after the first week, and in the third week he was looking around and administrating who was going to attack," he says as a form of compliment.
One topic that Nibali has had to field over the past few months has been Astana's battle to keep their WorldTour status after a run of positive doping tests for the organisation last year. The UCI requested that the Kazakh team have their licence revoked but the request was later denied. Still, the threat of sanction hung over the team for a considerable time.
"The team has always been united, and especially the riders have been focused on the results and racing. The licence hasn't been the top concern and we always felt like we'd keep the licence because the problem wasn't due to me or Aru. It was the Ignlinsky brothers and some of the riders from the development team."
Astana are now required to work with the Institute of Sport Sciences of the University of Lausanne (ISSUL) as part of their WorldTour status. Nibali revealed that the team had met with the institute.
"We had a meeting here in the Dauphiné with them. They came to our team hotel a few days ago and we're working together. One idea we're discussing is whether a team should lose their licence if there's a positive. That would be from 2017 onwards. I don't think that's a right idea because you'd destroy an entire team because of one man. There will be a discussion about this but it's just an idea at this moment."
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Daniel Benson is the Editor in Chief at both Cyclingnews.com and BikePerfect.com. Based in the UK, he has worked within cycling for almost 15 years, and he joined the Cyclingnews team in 2008 as the site's first UK-based Managing Editor. In that time, he has reported on over a dozen editions of the Tour de France, several World Championships, the Tour Down Under, Spring Classics, and the London 2012 Olympic Games. With the help of the excellent editorial team, he runs the coverage on Cyclingnews and has interviewed leading figures in the sport including UCI Presidents and Tour de France winners.
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