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Nibali Talking Points: Nibali vs. the Ghosts

Bryn Lennon

I'm out on the weekend, headed to our annual(ly mis-timed) camping trip, but it seems like much of the big picture discussion revolves around what to make of the previously unforeseen Nibali Tour de Force. Let's break down those impressions into their respective bits.

1. Nibali vs the Ghosts

Naturally, at the top of the discussion is consideration of the fact that the two primary favorites went home prematurely. Therefore, Nibali is winning a diminished Tour. Well, there is no question that the Tour is diminished by the absence of big favorites. That happens every year, but rarely if ever do we see the three active Tour winners crash out together. [Three of the five active winners, if you want to include Cadel Evans and Bradley Wiggins, who didn't take the start.] There is no question that losing Alberto Contador and Chris Froome makes it easier for Nibali to win. [Andy Schleck's abandonment was met with concerns only for Andy, not the competition.]

But NIbali can only beat the people who are here. And in fact he was in the process of beating Contador and Froome when both went out. So we are left with dueling speculations: if those two were here, they'd be in another gear that Nibali can't match! [Maybe.] Or, if those two were here, Nibali would have put enough time into them on the lesser stages to keep them at bay. He was halfway to doing so, but who knows. A healthy Froome might have hung in on the cobbles, though a better guess is that he would've fared even worse than he did on the ordinary wet roads.  None of this will ever be answered, to the frustration of us all.

2. Nibali vs. the Other Ghosts

Aha, now we're getting into something more fun: comparing Nibali's performance to the Old Skool, some of whom are actually ghosts, and others of whom are in charge of podium presentations. For years we've debated the droning power shows by wattage specialists vs swashbuckling Tour-winning riders of old. Every cobbles season we deride the Tour guys who wouldn't touch these races with a ten-foot fork. And now? Nibali might always be known primarily for his performance on stage 5, when he blew away the likes of not just Contador but Cancellara. Nibali has long been recognized as a fighter and a fearless descender. He's been a cagey grand tour winner and a solid teammate. He's the all-rounder we want to see.

Most of this is aimed strictly at Froome, and before him Wiggins, and before him definitely Lance. Evans won his Tour with a nice mix of skills and smarts. Contador is an attacking climber, though sometimes it's more show than substance. But he isn't boring. Even Wiggins, while winning the Tour in drab fashion, is not really defined that way, not after a very impressive Paris-Roubaix and some other nods to cycling history (e.g. chasing the Giro).

Anyway, Nibali has done his part to reawaken appreciation for the broad range of skills a champion cyclist should possess. Had he used those skills to beat Froome and/or Contador, he might have changed the sport, for the better.

3. Nibali vs. the Whispers

No Tour de France champion (which, I should interject, Nibali isn't, not yet) can avoid getting asked about doping, and that finally happened over the rest day, partly after Sky folks shamed journalists into it after the grilling Froome received last year. Nibali responded with disgust, but really, it's par for the course, for now.

Still, Nibali and the rest of this Tour does not stand out as being affected by doping in any noticeable way. Yes, you never know, and yes, pre-season doping is the real evil, and is unlikely to show up. But Nibali's performance is not out of line with his past results, so at a minimum we can't say there's an onion in the ointment solely on his Tour performance. Maybe he's a career-long, low-level doper but with no evidence there, we're left to assume (if we're being truly fair) that this is a clean performance. I can't really think of anyone else who seems magically transformed. Declaring victory is never a good idea, but at least we're not staring at another defeat in the war for clean cycling, as far as we know.

That's all I can think of for now.