PARIS (AFP) — A year ago Vincenzo Nibali was very much the third man, but the defending champion will begin the Tour de France this year with a far greater reputation.
Twelve months ago, everyone knew about the Astana rider’s ability and potential. After all, he had won the Giro d’Italia the year before and was Vuelta a España winner in 2010. He had also shown great ability on his previous two Tour participations, finishing sixth in 2009 and third in 2012.
But he was still largely viewed as the third option behind the two outright favorites, then-defending champion Chris Froome (Sky) and two-time winner Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo).
Yet even before that pair crashed out of the race, Nibali had stamped his authority on the Grand Boucle and laid down a marker that looked tough to surpass.
Right from the gun, Nibali had shown both tactical acumen and brazen daring as he sought to win cycling’s greatest prize.
On the second stage to Sheffield in northern England, the Sicilian attacked on a fast descent, taking his rivals by surprise but also showing the strength to hold onto his advantage over an elite chasing pack and win by two seconds.
The margin was small, but it spoke volumes of the Astana leader’s ambition and confidence.
Lo Squalo (“The Shark”) would strike an even more impressive blow three days later on the cobbled stage from Ypres to Arenberg.
While Froome crashed out before even reaching the cobbles, and Contador looked tentative on a cold, wet, blustery day, Nibali forced the pace up front in the slipstream of Danish teammate Jakob Fuglsang and put at least two and a half minutes into all of his major rivals.
He even left cobbled specialists like Fabian Cancellara more than a minute down the road.
Thereafter there was only one minor skirmish, in which Nibali lost only three seconds to Contador, before the Spaniard crashed out on stage 10, the first truly mountainous one, where the Italian won and showed all his rivals that he would not be easily beaten.
From then on he contented himself with proving to be the best climber, putting time into his rivals on every summit finish.
That’s likely to be a much harder task this time around, as long as Froome, Contador and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) are still around.
But what makes Nibali stand out is his ability to tear down mountainsides at breakneck speeds, as well as his willingness to attack from anywhere.
He demonstrated that at June’s Critérium du Dauphiné when he initiated an attack some 110km from the finish of a lumpy 183km stage.
There was no particularly taxing uphill finish but Nibali managed to take some strong riders with him — former world champion Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida), former Vuelta champion Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and time-trial specialist Tony Martin (Etixx-Quick-Step) — and they put time into the likes of Froome, American Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing Team) and young Frenchman Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale).
Nibali was not yet in peak form and lost time in the next two days’ summit finishes, but he will be in tip-top shape once the Tour begins. On Saturday, he won the Italian national road-race title for the second time, proving that an Achilles tendon injury that had curtailed his winter schedule was behind him.
His X-factor is both his ability to drop rivals on fast and technical descents, as well as the flair he shows in taking unexpected opportunities when they present themselves.
Question marks may remain as to whether or not he can match Contador, Froome and Quintana over all the tough mountain stages. But more than any of the others, he has the ability to make up time elsewhere.
And The Shark hopes that wearing the Italian road champion’s jersey gives him a little extra bite when it comes to chasing the Tour’s yellow kit.
“It’s prestigious, especially when you get to wear it for 25 days at the Tour,” he said. “The idea of folding it up and putting it away in a drawer doesn’t please me.”