Vincenzo Nibali was defiant during his attack to win the stage to La Toussuire and equally defiant after his victory, hitting back at Chris Froome after the Tour de France race leader criticised him for hitting out while he had a mechanical problem.
Nibali surged away a few seconds after Froome stopped on the side of the road, three kilometres from the top of the Col de la Croix de Fer, with 58km left in the stage. Several riders tried to go with the Italian but he powered clear alone, dived down the descent and won alone atop the climb to La Toussuire.
Froome quickly recovered from his mechanical problem (a stone had apparently become lodged in his rear brake) on the climb, but Nibali revealed Froome verbally attacked him after the stage in the podium area.
“I won't say the words he used because they've too harsh and it's not nice to say them. He was very angry but I don't know what his problem was. Lots of things happen in a race…” Nibali said in the post-stage press conference, seemingly unworried by the attack.
“Before judging, you need to think and use your brain. We're all nervous after the stage but he (verbally) attacked me. But I didn't reply, I didn't say anything,” Nibali explained.
It seems Froome and Nibali have never had a good relationship, with events during last year's Tour de France worsening their relationship.
The Italian believed the race was on and had every right to attack and ride his own race in an attempt to win the stage and move up to fourth in the general classification. Nibali was seen looking back just after launching his attack but denied that he'd seen Froome in difficulty.
“When I looked back, it was to look at Kangert. We did the race on the Col de la Croix de Fer and were planning to make a big attack,” he claimed, hitting back at Froome.
“Lots of things have happened to me too, but that's cycling. When Contador crashed on the descent (to Pra-Loup) we didn't know until three or four kilometres after. It happens a lot of times in races. I can remember when I crashed at the 2010 Giro d'Italia, at Montalcino. There was the incident when Andy Schleck was attacked by Contador at the Tour the other year. There are no rules….”
“Today the race radio didn't say anything. I knew that the chase group was at 40 seconds at the top, then 2:00 at bottom and further back on the climb. I just tried to continue my action and keep going all the way to the finish.”
Nibali also recalled how he has been chased down whenever he made an attack in the last few days.
“Froome, Valverde or Quintana always came after me when I moved, but I was down in eighth overall. Perhaps if Nibali rides well, it scares people,” he said.
A show of pride
Nibali's stage victory was a show of his Sicilian pride and a reply to those who have criticised him during the Tour de France after he failed to perform as well as he did in 2014 when he won stage two and dominated the overall classification. He has now saved his Tour de France and is fourth overall, 6:44 down on Froome but only 1:19 behind third placed Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).
“My attack was about, pride, anger and determination to fight back. We did a great ride as a team today,” Nibali said. “We wanted to blow open the race on the Col de la Croix de Fer because we knew it could be a great chance to gain time overall and win the stage. It wasn't easy but attacking from far out was best solution.”
Nibali was happy to win the stage but accepted he is not as strong as last year.
“In the last week I've been feeling better, even if we're all tired but compared to last year I lack some explosiveness. I think my endurance and power is the same but that's what I can feel compared to last year,” he said, refuting a suggestion he was frustrated by his form.
“Every year is not the same, its difficult to compare seasons. I was ready in the first week last year and stronger than this year. But we're human brings not machines, so you have good and better years. Perhaps Contador didn't go well here but he won the Giro d'Italia and he's paying for that. We've got to accept things; you can't always win against strong rivals. It's naturally things are like they are.”
With Nibali so close to a place on the podium in Paris, it is right to think he will try to distance Valverde on the climb to the finish in L'Alpe d'Huez. However he played down expectations of further audacious attacks.
“I don't know about that, I went deep today,” he pointed out. "Tomorrow's stage is only 100km but ends with a really hard climb up to L'Alpe d'Huez. It's an important stage. I think Movistar will focus on Nairo and so there's chance of doing something but we'll need to see how my legs are. Let's wait for tomorrow before making any predictions.”