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Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) starts the Tour de France...

Nibali: ‘We are not machines’

Vincenzo Nibali says his goal is the podium, but admits it will be a tall order to repeat as overall Tour de France winner

UTRECHT, Netherlands (VN) — Vincenzo Nibali is not nuts and bolts, but flesh and blood. The 2014 Tour de France champion, on the eve of the 2015 race, admitted that the “hard” spring season proved that he is nothing more than human.

Nibali has not won an internationally ranked race since accepting the winner’s yellow jersey on the Champs-Élysées in Paris last July. Partly making amends, he won the national championship last week in Italy and earned a second stint in the tricolor jersey.

He is named as one of the ‘Fab Four’ with Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), Chris Froome (Sky), and Nairo Quintana (Movistar), but there are some doubts given his ups and downs so far in 2015. Unlike the other three, he has no stage race title to his credit this spring. If he fails in the Tour, he would end the first half, the most important chunk, of the season empty-handed.

“Maybe you could think it would be that way for a rider like me, but there are good and bad seasons. You have to accept that,” he said.

“We’re not machines; we’re persons; we’re humans, so it’s normal.”

Nibali was quick to point out that only one Italian in the race’s 100-plus-year history, Ottavio Bottecchia in 1924 and 1925, successfully backed up his title.

Times have changed and cycling is a big-money sport these days. Contracts are not made public, but Nibali is likely one of the highest-paid cyclists and is under contract through 2016 with the Kazakh super-team at a rumored $4.44 million per year.

If he fails to perform in the Tour, then it is hard to imagine the Sicilian that fans call ‘The Shark’ would be happy with his 2015 season.

“I would not be content at all,” he said.

“My goal is to do well and get on the podium, but it’ll be difficult to get the win. With a second or third place, you’d have to be happy even if we’ve tried to do everything we can for the victory.”

Nibali deserves respect even if his season has been quiet. He is one of only six cyclists in the sport’s story to have won all three grand tours. In his palmarès, he counts the 2010 Vuelta a España and the 2013 Giro d’Italia alongside the 2014 Tour victory.

In addition to grand tours, he won the Tirreno-Adriatico stage race twice and one-day races like the GP Ouest France-Plouay. In Italy, he is viewed as the best of his generation.

For various reasons, from sponsor and team commitments that come with being a Tour winner to an injured Achilles tendon, he has not been able to live up to his potential through the first six months of 2015. In the background, Astana fought through April to keep its UCI license after doping cases rocked its professional and feeder teams last season.

Nibali, pushed ahead toward the Tour, like he did through a quiet 2014. Besides the Italian title, his best result was a second place in the Villard-de-Lans stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné. The next day, he paid for his effort, slipped out of the overall battle, and saw rivals Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) and Froome ride clear.

“I’ve lived through some difficult moments, but it’s helped me work harder, it helped me concentrate,” he added. “Not all the seasons are the same. The 2010 and 2012 seasons were great, seasons where I could go well from the start to the end. Those are seasons that are [hard] to repeat.

“It was a difficult spring, without wins, and I could not find condition. Also, as the defending Tour champion, it was hard to start the season, but we’ve tried to repeat my training and my lead-up to the Tour, doing more or less what we did last year.”

Froome was asked about Nibali and others in a later press conference. He did not note Nibali as a threat in the big mountain stages, but as one who could take advantage of the tricky first week.

This year, the Tour de France route travels along the often-windy coast of the Netherlands, climbs the Mur de Huy that the Flèche Wallonne uses to end the race each year, and covers some of the cobbles used in Paris-Roubaix before ending a nine-day run with a team time trial in Brittany.

Nibali might strike in those days as he did last year in the opening week, hold tight and attack in the mountains, or he could slip further behind in an underwhelming 2015 season.