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Nibali In Perspective

Have I written this column already? I can't remember. Anyway, I don't think anyone else has.

Bryn Lennon

So now he's gone and done it. Vincenzo Nibali has joined a select group of five other great cycling champions who've scored wins at all three grand tours. He's done it despite gaining a reputation for riding clean, if you can believe the conventional wisdom (which I do). So what do we do with the legacy of his newly-minted Tour victory? Here are some choices, with an obvious answer in the end.

1. Celebrate him as an all-time great

Nibali's cohorts in the three-different-jerseys club are Anquetil, Gimondi, Merckx, Hinault and Contador. So far, his palmares only vaguely resemble those of one man from this group -- his "countryman" Gimondi (not all Sicilians view Bergamo as part of the same country, but we'll go with this for now). The Phoenix racked up five grand tour wins, including three Giri, as well as a world championship, plus classic wins at Milano-Sanremo and Paris-Roubaix. It's hard to picture Nibali mirroring those accomplishments (suppressing thoughts of Nibali on the cobbles... suppressing thoughts of Nibali on the cobbles...) but he is an unusually well-rounded competitor in this day of specialization.

Like Gimondi, it's hard to speak of Nibali's Tour career, the ultimate measuring stick, without some acknowledgement of the stronger athletes blocking his way. Gimondi's sole maillot jaune came in his 1965 debut, an odd race which saw Anquetil stay away and others hauled off under suspicion. Only Jan Janssen among past and future Tour winners was present, and he too was hardly a typical winner. Gimondi went on to enter only one Tour pre-Merckx, the rather unfavorable (for him) 1967 edition which was light on time trials and heavy on mountains. Gimondi finished seventh, 10.14 off Roger Pingeon's pace. I don't know why he didn't show in '66 or '68, but in '69 he finished nearly a half-hour behind Merckx, snuffing out his Tour career. So Gimondi, while a great Giro champion and all-round racer, was a pretty standard (which is to say, flukey) one-off Tour winner. Unlike the other four pre-Nibali Three-Jersey guys, who eat grand tours for breakfast.

So this new club to which Nibali has gained admittance could fairly be described as Four Epic Champions (plus Bonus Italians!). Like any good club, you need at least one person who can cook.

2. Celebrate the Flukey Nature of Life, as Exhibited by Vincenzo Nibali Winning the Tour

No doubt a lot of people are parking their conclusions here, until further notice. Certainly just about every Tour victory contains some luck, or as we say in cobbles season, lack of bad luck. And just about every Tour sees luck distributed in dramatic ways. Most of the time the bad luck incidents don't make us think too differently about the outcome. Jurgen Van Den Broeck hit the deck? Well, he wasn't gonna catch Froome anyway. This year was different, to the point where the headline of history may read "Top Two Crash Out" rather than "Nibali Wins Tour". From there, of course Nibali won the Tour, because:

  • Alejandro Valverde is old, and not that great at grand tours;
  • two French guys were the best of the rest, and they had collectively never finished higher than ninth;
  • Van Den Broeck crashed again;
  • Tejay van Garderen isn't an elite enough climber;
  • Andrew Talansky crashed out;
  • Richie Porte isn't Tour captain material;

And so on. In other words, Nibali had by far the fewest shortcomings of any surviving contender, over any course, let alone this one (which suited Nibs very well). It might also be mentioned that Nibali's last Tour saw him third, behind only Wiggins and Froome in 2012. For him not to win would have been a massive underperformance. When life hands you lemons, you make lemonade I guess, but when it hands them to your rivals instead, you bust out the bubbly.

3. Hold Off On Celebrating: the Story is Half-Written (and Getting Very Interesting!)

Here's where I am at. You can look at Nibali as a fluke, but until he loses to Froome or someone else he's our Champion. Which leads to the next question...

Will he lose to Froome?

The battle of defending Tour champions could get very interesting indeed, thanks to their contrasting styles. Froome showed a bit more resiliency as a climber in the one Tour de France where the two met head to head -- 2012. Entering stage 19, the two were neck-and-neck, at 2.05 (Froome) and 2.41 (Nibs) to Wiggins. That 36-second spread became three minutes over the course of a 53km flat time trial. So yeah, if there are enough long time trials, Froome wins. But it's also worth mentioning that Froome was a domestique for Wiggins, and pipped some time from Nibali in a couple mountain stages. Both riders have come up a bit in stature since then, with wins under their belt. So Froome is maybe a better climber, or not worse, and definitely a better cronoman. How can Nibali win then? Not easily... but by hanging in through the climbs, by using his superb all-round skills to place Froome under pressure in the transitional stages, and by hoping for a course with low time trial mileage. Froome, like a running back who develops a sudden case of fumbleitis, has placed himself under suspicion of being a shitty bike handler, and guys like that can have all sorts of problems over the three weeks, on the right kind of parcours. This very much IS part of the sport.

Is this even the discussion we should be having?

Ah, well a better question might be whether this is even our future scenario. I am dismissing Contador from the discussion, for now, but not because he can't beat Nibali. On the contrary, I see them as very close, slightly different skillsets, and a tossup over your typical three week affair. Bert is the man, historically speaking, but Nibali has arrived, and at 31 now, Bert's best years are either behind him or at least growing few in number.

No, the question (since this is a Nibali assessment) is whether Nibali can hang with Nairo Quintana. The two have not met in a grand tour, trading off years of Tour vs. Giro/Vuelta. But Quintana by all appearances is a generational climbing talent, with a fair quotient of handling skills, maturity, and poise. He rose to prominence at age 23, delivering such a stunning performance at last year's Tour that all of Colombia held a parade in his honor. This year he was smartly routed to the Giro, where he dealt with real adversity (crash, crap weather, and all the forces stacked against non-Italians at the Giro) to emerge with a clear and convincing win. He's not Nibali's equal in the time trial, but is probably capable of putting a good five minutes into Vinny on a massive mountains course. And that's giving Nibali full credit for being a fighter. So yeah, whether Nibali can hang with Don Nairo depends greatly on course makeup.

The Verdict

I am keeping an open mind about option #3, that future chapters will show that Nibali belongs on the top rung of grand tour champions. But my hunch is that future chapters will actually show that Nibali is the new Gimondi, a rider who was capable of truly great performances, at least until someone even greater got in his way.