Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali, who won the Tour de France on Sunday, became the first Italian in 16 years to secure cycling’s greatest race and he instantly becomes the new poster boy for anti-doping.
Nibali carved out a lead over his main rivals a few seconds at a time and dominated them in the mountains, winning four stages.
The 29-year-old Sicilian, who called himself “a flag-bearer of anti-doping” during the race, finished in the main pack behind Marcel Kittel, who won Sunday’s Stage 21 in a sprint finish.
Nibali’s victory came after the pre-race favorites – 2013 champion Chris Froome and two-time winner Alberto Contador – crashed out with injuries in the first half of the three week Tour.
Nibali is only the sixth rider to win all three Grand Tours – France, Italy and Spain – and is the first Italian to win the Tour de France since Marco Pantani in 1998. Nibali’s triple achievement puts him in an exclusive club with Bernard Hinault, Jacques Anquetil, Contador, Eddy Merckx and Felice Gimondi.
France’s Jean-Christophe Peraud was the Tour’s second place finisher, 7 minutes 37 seconds behind Nibali. His compatriot Thibaut Pinot was third, 8 minutes 15 seconds behind the champ.
Craig Merren, president of the Cayman Islands Cycling Association, said, “It’s good to know that an Italian has finally won after all these years, but Nibali was not the favorite.
“It might have been a better finish had Froome and Cantador not crashed out. The fact that Bradley Wiggins, who I like very much, did not compete also influenced my interest.”
Merren added that he believes Nibali “has got a few more Tours left in his cycling career.”
He added, “He has what it takes to become one to reckon with in the future in Tour de France races and the other grand tours.”
Merren said that he expected Spain’s Alejandro Valverde, who finished fourth, to be Nibali’s closet opponent, but the Italian was in tip-top form “and rode like a real champion from start to finish.”
Merren added that he is glad that Peraud and Pinot are fresh faces for future tours that will pique more interest in the sport. Nibali’s Tour win was the most comprehensive since Merckx in 1974.
Many cycling enthusiasts hope Nibali will not taint the sport’s doping image even further. On analysis, he looks like a good bet not to.
A keen student of the sport, he was raised on stories of the fierce rivalry between Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi, warring Italian giants.
Drug speculation is constant, a sad but inevitable lesson of the last few years when Lance Armstrong was so defiant until it was no longer possible to conceal the big lie. In this post-Armstrong world, skepticism is inevitable.
Nibali actually presents a credible case despite speculation. He was one of the first riders to be outspoken against doping and told Bicisport magazine as a youngster with Liquigas that “dopers were thieves who ought to be locked up.”
Nibali was born on Nov. 14, 1984, in Messina, Sicily, the son of Salvatore and Giovanna.
Growing up he used to watch video compilations in his parents’ video store of cycling heroes Francesco Moser and Marco Pantani.
Driven to be a pro cyclist from an early age, he left Messina for Tuscany at age 16 and lived for 10 months in the house of his former boss Carlo Franceschi.
Nibali showed so much promise as a youngster that Sir Dave Brailsford twice tried to sign him for Team Sky.
He finished third at the Junior World Time Trial Championship in 2002 and third again at the Under-23 World Time Trial Championship two years later and gradually built his career from there.
He eventually broke through to elite level by winning the 2010 Vuelta a Espana, although he did not win a stage.
Nibali confirmed this was not a fluke by winning last year’s Giro d’Italia relatively easily, and comfortably pulled ahead of rivals like Valverde, Peraud and Pinot at this year’s Tour confirming just how good he has become.
There was an element of luck in winning the Tour, of course, had Froome and Contador not crashed out.
“I’m very clear about myself,” Nibali said. “If I have a seven-minute lead it’s not because of a great performance on one day, it’s because of seconds I’ve collected here or there.”
Much of that time came when he rode away from his rivals at the Hautacam on Thursday, looking as fresh as when he started.
The critics surfaced again, but Nibali’s time of 37 minutes 20 seconds up the Hautacam was only good enough to place him 26th on the all-time list, nearly three minutes behind Bjarne Riis’s effort of 34:40, set in 1996 at the height of the doping era.
That is not conclusive proof that Nibali is not doping but puts things in context.
More worrying for some is his association with convicted cheat Alexandre Vinokourov, his manager at the Kazakh-backed Astana, which itself has a pretty checkered past.
Astana was created after Liberty Seguros-Wurth was disbanded, which was heavily implicated in the Operation Puerto doping scandal and previously managed by Johan Bruyneel, the former team manager of the now disgraced U.S. Postal Team.
Armstrong rode for Postal on his comeback five years ago. When asked on Friday whether he would like to see Vinokourov speak more openly about his doping history and champion a cleaner sport, Nibali was unfazed.
“I think that he already did,” he said. “He served his suspension. The team Astana is completely new, a young team with young riders, completely different than before.”
Of his indifferent form earlier this year, Nibali said that his sole intention was just to peak for the Tour where “others have wanted to ride flat out at all the races they took part in.”
Consensus is that Nibali might simply have been distracted after his wife gave birth to their first child earlier this season.
It will take a while yet for cycling to escape its doping notoriety – perhaps it never will – but in Nibali there seems hope for cautious optimism.
He does not yet have the charisma and panache of some predecessors but is nevertheless a wonderful rider with a keen understanding of his place in cycling’s colorful history.