Tag Archives: Nibali

Nibali slides to opportunity

Tour de France, Stage 5.

Apart from stage winner Greg Van Avermaet’s epic stage win (maybe crashing out of the Tour of Flanders and missing Paris-Roubaix has an upside), people are talking about Giro d’Italia champion Vincenzo Nibali and his terrible day.

Cycling Central has it here.

I’ve got a CRAAAAAZY theory about Nibali’s slide down the overall rankings, shipping more than EIGHT MINUTES to the GC big boys, on a stage that he really should have had no trouble with. Cue mutterings about his form, his bad legs, and his overall ambitions being dashed. I suppose that’s the official line.

Bullshit, the lot of it. It’s all part of his cunning plan. Consider:

  • Nibali has already won a Grand Tour this season (and he knows what happens if you try to do the Giro/Tour double).
  • Nibali cannot stand his team leader, Fabio Aru. They hate each other’s guts. Nibali is ostensibly riding in support of Aru, but clearly doesn’t want to.
  • Nibali does not give a shit about the general classification.
  • Nibali wants to win the Olympic road race in Rio de Janeiro in a few weeks. This whole Tour is a training ride for him.
  • Nibali knows he is more than good enough to win a stage or two in the mountains, especially if he’s not a GC threat.
  • Nibali is almost certainly out the door at Astana at the end of the season. He probably feels like he owes them absolutely nothing.

That’s why Vincenzo looked like he wasn’t even trying on stage 5, when he plopped off the back as soon as Movistar turned on the power. He wasn’t trying.

He wasn’t breathing hard, his shoulders weren’t rocking, he wasn’t all twisted and hunched like the injured Alberto Contador, and he wasn’t pedalling squares like Peter Sagan. He was cruising along like it was a coffee ride, giving zero fucks. In fact, you could almost see him calculating how much time he needed to lose before he’d be allowed up the road in the Pyrenees this weekend.

Now consider what’s coming up:

  • Stage 7 – a Cat.1 climb to the Col d’Aspin followed by a descent to the finish in Lac de Payolle – looks almost tailor-made for the Shark.
  • Stage 8 – the Col du Tourmalet (HC) followed  by three categorised climbs culminating in the Col de Peyresoude followed by a descent to the finish in Bagneres-de-Luchon – also looks almost tailor-made for the Shark.
  • Stage 9 – five categorised climbs with a HC summit finish in Andorra, looks like a great place for the shark to do what he did on stage 19 of the Giro.

Don’t be surprised if Nibali pulls out the earpiece on any of these stages, launches himself up the road and takes a bit of glory for himself. It’d be a perfect slap in the [rubber] face to Aru, adds to his market value in a new contract year, and reminds everyone why he’s nicknamed after an apex predator.

For that plan to work, it’s a big advantage if he’s not a threat to Team Sky, Movistar, Tinkoff or BMC.

Besides, can you really see Nibali playing loyal domestique to his understudy and arch-rival Aru? With his ego? Haaaahahaha!

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Who’s in your Grand Tour Dream Team for 2014?

The Grand Tours have finished for 2014 and we’re on the downhill run to the season’s finish.

This week, as I soft-pedalled my way through the ennui that accompanied this depressing realisation, a thought struck me: ‘if you could pick a dream team of nine riders based on their performances in Grand Tours this year, who would you pick?’

Image credit: Ian Wakefield (https://www.flickr.com/photos/iandwakefield/14421245888/)
Image credit: Ian Wakefield (https://www.flickr.com/photos/iandwakefield/14421245888/)

It would have to be a balanced squad, not just a team of GC whippets. You’d need some sprinters and some blokes to do the grunt work. You’d have an unlimited budget (hey, spreadsheets are for proper jobs).

Any performances from non-Grand Tour races don’t count. Winning classics doesn’t help here, sorry Gerro.

I’ve chosen three GC riders, three sprinters and three wildcards.

Some selections were easy. Yes, predictably the three GC winners are present, but each of them won their respective titles in relatively straightforward fashion, were clearly the best riders in the races. I couldn’t convince myself that Jean-Christophe Peraud’s battling second at the Tour was better than Contador’s win at the Vuelta.

Marcel Kittel is another obvious choice. He almost can’t be beaten.

The others are less clear cut, and I’m sure there’s a few of you who’ll have other suggestions. It’s hard picking just nine guys. Anyway, here’s my Grand Tour Dream Team.

  1. Vincenzo Nibali
    It’s hard to think of a more perfect performance than Vincenzo Nibali produced at the Tour de France. For me, it was easily the best ride of the year, and one of the best individual Grand Tour performances I have seen. Right from his surprise victory in stage 2 in Sheffield, it was clear that Nibali had come to France in peak form. Go hard or go home was the theme, and by stage 5 on the cobbles he already had the Tour by the throat and his rivals faltering. Nibali won four stages, led the race for 19 out of 21 days, and won by 7’37” having barely dropped a second to any rival. He’s first picked.
  2. Nairo Quintana
    Many fans were bitterly disappointed when Movistar chose Alejandro Valverde as leader for the Tour de France, leaving their Colombian prodigy at home. It seemed crazy after Quintana’s storming 2013 performance. Quintana himself was disappointed, but management insisted that riding the Giro as leader would be better for his development. As it turned out, Quintana put in a scintillating performance in Italy, and clearly demonstrated that he isn’t fazed by the responsibility of leadership. His crash at the Vuelta was a massive shame, but his superbly aggressive performance in Italy still guarantees him a place in my dream team.
  3. Alberto Contador
    A season built around the Tour could have ended in disaster when the Spaniard lost concentration and crashed on Stage 11. His surprise return for the Vuelta provided some redemption, but his winning performance despite recovering from a broken leg really only increases speculation about what might have been if he’d been able to finish the Tour. That said, his Vuelta performance was full of grit and determination, despite coming in underdone. It’s a grudging selection for me, but I think it ranks him as one of the top 3 GC riders in this year’s Grand Tours, ahead of the podium-getters from the Tour.
  4. Marcel Kittel
    This year, Kittel has clearly been the best sprinter in Grand Tours. He looked unstoppable in the first days of the Giro, winning two stages before getting sick and withdrawing from the race before stage 4. He returned in the Tour, winning four stages including the two that all the fast men wanted, stages 1 and 21. On the flat, Kittel is virtually invincible. Between him and Nibali for the easiest selection.
  5. John Degenkolb
    Kittel’s Giant-Shimano teammate has disproved the conventional wisdom that having two gun sprinters in the same team is a recipe for ego clashes and conflict. The two are different enough that they don’t really compete for the same stage wins, and their rapport seems strong. Four stage wins and the points jersey in the Vuelta shows how good Degenkolb is when given the opportunity, and he can get over modest hills to win sprints that Kittel can’t.
  6. Michael Matthews
    The flashy Aussie sprinter came of age this year. He won two stages at the Giro (including the TTT) and wore the pink jersey for six days. He sat out of the Tour de France, but returned to the Vuelta in style, winning stage 3 and wearing the leader’s jersey for three days. Matthews is a highly versatile sprinter who can win on stages with moderate hills. I’ve picked him ahead of Nacer Bouhanni because of his all-around ability to win and then hang on to leader’s jerseys where other sprinters would struggle – that’s hugely valuable to his team.
  7. Rafal Majka
    Despite coming into the Tinkoff-Saxo Tour squad at the last minute and seemingly against his will, Majka’s role as a support for Alberto Contador changed when the Spaniard crashed out. Switching to freelance mode, Majka took his chance and won two stages of the Tour, and the KoM jersey. This followed an impressive Giro d’Italia where he finished 6th overall. I think Majka is the best super-domestique in the world at the moment.
  8. Tony Martin
    Always the unbackable favourite to win the time trial stage(s) in any Grand Tour he rides, but he also managed to take stage 9 of the Tour de France with a solo breakaway that ripped the peloton to shreds. He’s also a great team rider, regularly seen drilling it on the front to shut down breakaways for his Omega Pharma-Quickstep team, and is a huge contributor to that team’s regular high finishes in team time trials.
  9. Geraint Thomas
    I’m picking G. Thomas because he’s become one of the most valuable riders in his team, even without the wins and profile of some others. He is relentless, tough as nails, and completely selfless. He only rode the Tour de France this year, but some of the rides he put in for Chris Froome and Richie Porte were incredible. He still finished 22nd overall – not bad for a guy who was working for others and is better known as a classics man. Picked for his grunt work and attitude.

Unlucky to miss out:

Peter Sagan
His Tour de France green jersey showed his consistency and versatility, but he didn’t win a stage. He also failed to win a stage at the Vuelta. If he can overcome being a marked man, and rectify some tactical naivety, Sagan clearly has enough buckets of ability to fill an Olympic swimming pool. This year, he’s been better outside Grand Tours than in them.

Michael Rogers
Has had a great year after the worst possible start, under a doping cloud. Since being cleared, he’s ridden with a freedom that has rarely been seen during his long career, and it’s netted him two Giro stage wins, and one at the Tour. That’s a great return for a guy who doesn’t get many personal opportunities. Also a great team man.

Alejandro Valverde
Probably the most versatile rider in the world. How many others can win during the spring classics (he won Roma Maxima and Fleche Wallonne, and was second at Liege-Bastogne-Liege), miss a Tour de France podium by a handful of seconds, and then back it up with a Vuelta that netted him 3rd overall, 2nd in the points jersey, 3rd in the mountains jersey, and two stages (one individual, and a team time trial)? He’s got lethal finishing speed for a guy who can climb with the elite, and he’s also amazingly consistent through the season. He might not win a Grand Tour again, but he’s usually not far off the podium and he really loves a stage win.

Fabio Aru
Astana’s ‘mini-Nibs’ emerged from obscurity this season to finish on the podium in the Giro and 5th at the Vuelta. He also won a stage at each, showing that at just 24 years old, he’s Italy’s next likely Grand Tour challenger after Nibali himself.

Nacer Bouhanni
Despite being the second-favourite sprinter on the FDJ.com team, Bouhanni cleaned up five Grand Tour stages this season: three in the Giro and two in the Vuelta. Bouhanni only misses out because Kittel dominates him head-to-head, and he’s still not versatile enough when the road gets lumpy.
He’s had a combative year with his team management preferring Arnaud Démare for the Tour, and his race programme has been cut short by criticism of FDJ management after he signed for rivals Cofidis for next year. Despite all this, he won more Grand Tour stages in 2014 than Mark Cavendish and Andre Greipel combined.

Adam Hansen
Because how can you have a Grand Tour team without Adam Hansen? He’s now finished ten in a row, and even claimed a stage win at the Vuelta this year. Hansen is the ultimate team rider, and everyone knows it. He’s also grown in confidence over the last two years and is now often making the race. Very dangerous in a break.

Flawless Nibali has got this Tour on a silver platter

After a first week that tore up every script and binned some of the best-laid plans, followed by a second week that tipped the rubbish bin full of torn-up scripts and plans upside down and set them on fire, the Tour’s third week has settled to a steady pile of glowing embers.

Sure, it’s theoretically possible that it could re-ignite and burn the house down, but it’s starting to look relatively safe and predictable for Vincenzo Nibali. Break out the marshmallows.

It has to be said, the Italian has ridden a flawless Tour de France so far. He’s taken only the best calculated risks, made no mistakes, never looked in peril, and seized every opportunity to put time into his rivals.

He’s beaten all of his GC rivals comfortably on every important climb. Here’s the breakdown of where he took time from his closest challenger, Alejandro Valverde:

Stage 2: 2 seconds

Stage 5: 2:09

Stage 8: 16 seconds

Stage 10: 20 seconds

Stage 13: 50 seconds

Stage 14: 1:00

Stage 17: 48 seconds.

It’s a leaky bucket that just can’t be patched. Every time it gets picked up a bit more liquid sloshes out and disappears into the dust.

The Nibali method in the mountains is not dissimilar to that of Team Sky: use his Astana teammates to set a tempo hard enough to soften everyone up, before Nibali attacks with around 2km remaining, depending on the gradient and race situation.

A short acceleration and maintaining a strong tempo to the finish is enough to open time gaps without needing him to dig so deep he risks being flat the following day.

It works, indeed it looks easy, because he is riding against two men past their best years (Valverde and Peraud) and a number who are acknowledged up and comers, but still a few years away from their peaks (Pinot, Bardet, van Garderen).

Nibali on the other hand is a worthy champion in every sense. He’s experienced, calm, and at the perfect age to win grand tours. He’s the best climber in the race, the best descender, and the most consistent. His focus is intense. He’s polite and humble in interviews. He has used his team with skill.

Anything less than victory would be an injustice, after the race he’s had.

Would it be different if Froome and Contador were still in the race? Undoubtedly, yes. But beating the course itself has always been half the battle in any Grand Tour, and both of the absent leaders failed to do so. There’s no point crying over that.

What I’m getting at is it’s nigh-on impossible to see Nibali losing from here without crashing. We all know it. Nibali knows it. Valverde knows it. Pinot knows it. Even Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen know it.

As leaders have fallen, the challenge to his Astana team’s control has evaporated.

Team Sky has collapsed, BMC has wilted. The GC hopes of Belkin and Lotto-Belisol have gone about as well as expected, with riders in the top ten but out of podium contention. NetApp-Endura will be overjoyed with Leopold Konig’s Tour, but the team simply doesn’t have the depth to challenge the big boys.

Tinkoff-Saxo has made a very effective pivot to a stage-win strategy, snagging three victories to salvage some pride from a Tour that could have been a disaster, but couldn’t give a fig about going head-to-head with Astana. Majka, Rogers and Roche made sure to lose enough time that they’d be given the freedom to go up the road.

Europcar is still playing for TV time.

AG2R has surprised with its strength: Bardet, Peraud and Blel Kadri have all been excellent.

Movistar has also managed an effective resistance, but when it has come to the crunch their leader hasn’t had the legs to follow Nibali, and in stage 17 the sight of Giovanni Visconti going for a stage win while his leader lost time showed that faith was wavering.

No wonder Astana director Alexandre Vinokourov hasn’t been seen without a grin for the past fortnight. Everything has gone to plan. His team has been the strongest. His leader has never faltered. The competition has collapsed. Perfect outcome!

With one mountain stage remaining, and a time trial, the GC battle for this Tour de France is practically over. I’m a huge fan of Vincenzo Nibali’s and he has ridden a magnificent race, but I still can’t help but feel disappointed with how early the fight for yellow became a procession.

This was no accident. Nibali is just a class above.


This article first appeared on The Roar.