MILAN (VN) — Vincenzo Nibali had a rough ride as reigning Tour de France champion. Taking the yellow jersey and winner’s vase on the Champs-Élysées in Paris marked a high in his career, but it came with its responsibilities. The Sicilian said he had a “very difficult winter” ahead of his title defense that starts Saturday.
The wintertime may have affected him because he only counts one win ahead of the 2015 Tour de France, which starts in the Dutch city of Utrecht. Nibali, like last year, won the Italian national championship and the right to wear his country’s colors with team Astana’s in the Tour and for the rest of the year.
Missing in Nibali’s palmarès, however, are big wins. His top rivals — Chris Froome (Sky), Nairo Quintana (Movistar), and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) — all count major stage race titles in 2015. Froome just won the Critérium du Dauphiné, Contador won the Giro d’Italia, and Quintana took the Tirreno-Adriatico title in March.
Even though he feels ready to defend his Tour title against them and others like American Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), Nibali said the winter took its toll.
“I had a very difficult and complicated, winter, full of commitments, which never allowed me to recover fully, above all mentally,” Nibali said in a press conference ahead of the Italian national road race.
After his win Saturday, he added, “It was difficult to go one year without winning and to be the focus of criticism.
“Then I had a problem that I never confessed. This winter I had problems with my right Achilles tendon, which luckily, I’ve overcome now.”
Nibali began his season in February at the Dubai Tour and rarely appeared at the front of the action. At the end of the Tour de Romandie, he said that he was not going as he wanted to be at that point in May. In the Critérium du Dauphiné earlier this month against rivals Froome and van Garderen, he appeared better. He suffered and lost ground on the stage to Pra-Loup but returned with an aggressive, day-long attack and earned second place to Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida).
Part of the problem for Nibali could have been linked to Astana. The Kazakh team in turquoise suffered five doping cases, two from the professional team, since Nibali won the Tour de France. The UCI wanted to take away its racing license, which would have left Nibali searching for a team, but its commission ruled in April it could continue.
Problems aside, Nibali is ranked as the second best grand tour rider of cycling’s current crop. Only Spaniard Alberto Contador counts more grand tour wins with seven.
Nibali has won all three grand tours — the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France, and the Vuelta a España — once. He is part of an elite club of six that includes Jacques Anquetil, Felice Gimondi, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, and Contador to do have done that.
Nibali’s Tour win in 2014 came after Froome and Contador crashed and abandoned with fractured bones. He won ahead Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), and brushed aside critics that said it was an easy win against a weakened field.
This 2015 Tour could further underline his status as a grand tour champion.
“Froome impressed on the climbs in the Dauphiné. Quintana, though, is the most dangerous for me,” Nibali said.
“I don’t know if Contador will be tired [after the Giro]. You need a perfect season to pull off the Giro/Tour double, but he has he capacity to do so.”