In the first two installments of Nibali Week, I tried to regurgitate the early stages of Vincenzo Nibali’s fascinating career. Maybe it was a bit too much “and then THIS happened!”, but with Nibali, it’s important to set the context for his crowning achievements if we are to truly celebrate his life’s work. Through 2013, which he ended as arguably the #1 cyclist in the world, he was:
- a guy whose motor might be underestimated, but whose will to win combined nicely with that motor to drive him higher than the doubters would expect;
- a winner for two different teams, steadily progressing toward (but probably a cut below) the highest echelon of the sport, that of legit Tour de France victors; and
- A guy on a team that maybe won’t be confused for the old Postal train, but which was pretty well positioned to support him.
And then he went and won the 2014 Tour de France.
On a number of levels, this was a fascinating victory, the likes of which we rarely see and might not see again in my lifetime (diet and exercise notwithstanding). Let’s take a quick look back at how the race unfolded for Nibali before we dive in.
How He Won
The 2014 Tour was Chris Froome’s first chance to show that his initial victory the previous year was no fluke, and coming in he seemed to have little standing in his way, aside from expectations. The previous year’s surprise protagonist, Nairo Quintana, opted to ride the Giro (which he won) instead of the Tour, eliminating Froome’s biggest danger in the high mountains. After that, there was an aging Alberto Contador, who was still winning Vueltas (he’d bag that last chip months after the Tour), but Froome had dispatched the former winner with ease in both the Pyrénées and Alps in 2013. Nibali probably ranked next among the favorites, because after that came fading stars like Valverde and Schleck, and a few of the usual suspects like Thibaut Pinot, Tejay van Garderen and Jurgen Van Den Broeck. I don’t remember feeling all that bullish about Nibali — a Tour? Really? — so suffice to say, it was Froome’s to lose.
Which he did, on the fourth stage when he hit the deck for the first time, a situation he compounded on the fifth stage, a Paris-Roubaix-style pavé course, and before the race hit the 1⁄4 mark Froome was riding off in the team car. Nibali, meanwhile, announced his own intentions by waiting exactly one day, the flat opening stage in Harrogate, to attack. He won a rolling stage 2 in Sheffield to gain a small margin and capture the maillot jaune, so before Froome had begun to crash away his hopes, the gauntlet had already been thrown down.
Most of us just remember this:
The Tour de France likes to have a real cobbles stage every now and then, and stage 5 of the 2014 edition included seven secteurs en route to Port du Hainault. Nibali and Astana were ready. As captured succinctly by Cosmo Catalano in his HTRWW video, they got Lieuwe Westra up the road for later and generally surrounded Nibali all day. They had guys who knew how to ride rough roads, including apparently Nibali, who sailed across the stones all day long like an old pro, despite the rain and wind that turned the stage into a hellscape for the other grand tour leaders. Froome began the day with a wrist brace on, then rode nervously until crashing twice more and retiring.
Remarkably, Nibali and his teammate Jakob Fuglsang not only made the front of the race until stage winner Lars Boom slipped away for the win late — they actually dropped Fabian Cancellara, Peter Sagan and a number of cobbleheads on the penultimate secteur, the three Astanas just rolling off the front, getting a gap, and using the final secteur to hammer out a large advantage. Nibali came in 42 seconds ahead of the classics group, but more importantly put 1:53 into Van Den Broeck and more than two minutes into every other potential challenger.
From there, an emboldened Astana hit cruise control until stage 10 where, one day after giving away the maillot jaune to a harmless breakaway, Nibali seized it back for good on La Planche des Belles Filles. The Planche, making its second Tour appearance, represented the start of real uphill hostilities, and Nibali put anywhere from 15 seconds to a minute into his challengers. Contador crashed and abandoned the Tour. Nibali had 2.23 over Richie Porte. And the Tour seemed like it might be over.
It was. With the competition depleted and demoralized, Nibali won stages to Chamrousse — the first Alps stage — and to Hautacam — the first Pyrénean event. He gradually pushed his lead out to over four minutes, then five, and finally 7.37 in Paris. He eliminated more challengers and never conceded an inch to a potential rival. Final standings:
- Vincenzo Nibali (ITA) Astana, 89h 59’ 06”
- Jean-Christophe Péraud (FRA) Ag2r–La Mondiale, + 7’ 37”
- Thibaut Pinot (FRA) FDJ.fr+ 8’ 15”
- Alejandro Valverde (ESP)Movistar Team+ 9’ 40”
- Tejay van Garderen (USA)BMC Racing Team+ 11’ 24”
- Romain Bardet (FRA) Ag2r–La Mondiale+ 11’ 26”
- Leopold König (CZE)NetApp–Endura+ 14’ 32”
- Haimar Zubeldia (ESP)Trek Factory Racing+ 17’ 57”
- Laurens ten Dam (NED)Belkin Pro Cycling+ 18’ 11”
- Bauke Mollema (NED)Belkin Pro Cycling+ 21’ 15”
So What Do We Make Of This?
I have a series of questions about this victory. It’s the crowning achievement of his career, and in a way, that is totally perfect.
- It was a cultural landmark
- It’s one of the great one-off Tour wins
- It’s one of the most atypical wins ever
- And the elephant in the room... could he have beaten a healthy Froome?
The Cultural Landmark: I wrote a long piece about this in real time, halfway through the race, rounding up the relatively short history of Italian winners not yet including Nibali. It’s a little strange that history includes so few Italian Tour champions, but there are numerous books on why Italian cyclists have left it all on the road back home most of the time. In truth, the greatest Italian cyclists all knew that they should try to win the Tour as well, but unless they were willing to skip the Giro, it wasn’t happening.
Of course then, and even more so now, the Tour was and is a much more international event, and to assume that an Italian could win there under anything less than a full commitment to doing so is a disservice to the Belgians, Dutch, Luxembourgers, Spaniards, Danes, Americans and of course French riders who all pinned their highest hopes and greatest resources on winning the Tour. It figures that Nibali broke through in probably the first year he committed himself as well as a well-stocked team completely to this goal.
[Funnily enough, Nibali came into the Tour with nothing but an Italian Nats title to show for his season, having won nothing and looked nowhere all spring, prompting the ever-subtle Vinokourov to write a letter to Nibali reminding him that he is paid a lot and expected to win. Nibali hardly needed reminding, but I believe he had a daughter born in the offseason, and used that experience to slow down his buildup to the Tour from his usual program. Which is basically what the Tour-only guys had been doing for years. It worked.]
Oh, and the other thing... he is the only rider from Mezzogiorno (and Sicily, natch) to break through at the Tour. That one might stand for a while. When it comes time to put up some cycling statues in Messina, Palermo, even Bari or Napoli, you got your guy right here.
The One-Off Winner: In the post-WW2 era there are no less than 31 riders who have won the Tour de France just a single time (counting guys like Vingegaard and Bernal who can still maybe ride themselves off this list). There are a few of these folks who you would say just came out of nowhere — names like Roger Walkowiak, Lucien Aimar, Bjarne Riis, Bradley Wiggins and Geraint Thomas, riders whose track record didn’t point to a breakthrough win. Then you have numerous other one-time winners, like Kübler and Kobet, Charly Gaul, Luis Ocaña, Jan Janssen, Pedro Delgado, Jan Ullrich, and Cadel Evans, riders who we counted among the greats and who consistently threatened to win, only to manage a single Tour success.
Nibali struck me at the time as belonging more to the former group, but now I think we have to include him in the latter. Sure, his Tour win was somewhat against the odds and perhaps a product of a thin field, given that he never came close to repeating it. But he had finished third racing in the well-attended 2012 event, and his victory put him in extremely rare company with Anquetil, Merckx, Gimondi, Hinault, Contador and (later) Froome as the only riders to win all three grand tours. Like I said a couple days ago, there’s a reason his nickname isn’t the Angel of this or the Eagle of that, but rather the Shark of the Straits — he doesn’t just fly away from the competition, but he devours them often enough in the end.
The Atypical Win: When was the last time you could point to a flat stage and say that is where the Tour was won? And I don’t mean something fluky happened which shaped the destinies of the top contenders, I mean the guy who won carved out his most impactful advantage on a stage that was neither a mountainous one nor a time trial? Had this ever happened before? Because I know it hasn’t happened since.
I have been watching the Tour studiously since 1985 and I can tell you that 2014 was the only time this happened. You can argue that the 2006 race was similarly weird, since the title was eventually awarded to Oscar Pereiro, who clawed back almost 30 minutes from then-leader Floyd Landis as part of the breakaway, on a stage with some cat-4 climbs but which saw Robbie McEwen take the field sprint for 6th place. Of course Landis won the race on the road only to be disqualified and the victory eventually credited to Pereiro, so if you want to recognize that as a win, you could call it a Walko. We’ve had two Walko’s — the original 1956 win by Walkowiak when he too was gifted 18 minutes early on in the Tour, on a relatively flat stage in Brittany, and like Pereiro he managed to climb with the top riders just long enough to take the victory. So if you include indifference, sure, there have been at least three such anomalous wins. But I can’t think of another.
So... Could He Have Beaten the Very Best? This is the hardest question, and obviously it is riddled with conjecture. I think Nibali was up to this task in 2014, and in no other year. I will offer some evidence.
- Nibali at his best did not always succumb to either Contador or Froome in the mountains or time trials. In the 2012 Tour, he finished 3’ behind Froome but almost all of that came in the final time trial, after he and Froome rode nearly even throughout the mountains. He also beat Froome rather handily in the 2013 Tirreno-Adriatico — not the best data point, but you get the point. I’m not sure 2014 Nibali bests Froome over a straightforward Tour course, but I’m not sure he doesn’t either.
- And anyway, they weren’t racing a straightforward Tour in 2014. Even if Froome doesn’t crash on either stage 4 or 5, he still almost certainly loses multiple minutes to Nibali on the cobbles. His best case scenario is finishing 2.18 down with Porte and Thomas, but Froome looked shaky throughout, and this was before he touched a single wet cobble. I doubt he makes it into the competent chase group; more likely he loses three or more minutes.
- The 2014 Tour did include a 54km time trial, but that was on the penultimate stage, and was the only race against the watch. Maybe that favors Froome? Or maybe it’s too little, too late. Nibali would have been flying high by then and tough to bring down.
- I don’t think Contador had it in him. His track record says his Tour-winning days were behind him... but it would be foolish not to acknowledge that he came to that 2014 Tour in better condition than he’d enjoyed in a while, and looked strong on the Gerardmer stage, which he won by 3” over Nibali. Like Froome, though, there is no escaping his 2:37 deficit on the cobbles, and however good he might have been, Nibali probably shadows him at worst. Bert was good then but not 2009 blow-them-away good.
- Lastly, Froome often enjoyed a team strength advantage, but 2014 was the weakest support he ever had in his Tour challenges/victories. Apart from Thomas and Porte, he had Bernie Eisel, Mikel Nieve, Vasil Kiryienka... nothing Earth-shattering.
The optimist/Nibali fan in me thinks Nibali wins. Nibali was more primed to win than the aging Contador. But I know what Froome went on to do from there, so of course there’s a decent chance Froome comes back from his stage 5 descent into Hell and just stamps his authority on the race. Knowing all we know about Nibali, the patience, the determination, the ability to read a race and maximize his advantage... a guy like that knows how to leverage strong team support and a few minutes in hand. I would definitely like his chances. But I can’t guarantee anything.
Tomorrow: What about the Classics?