5 Reasons Vincenzo Nibali Winning the Tour De France Would Be Good for Cycling
Given the form the Italian has been in, the four minutes and 37 seconds he holds over Alejandro Valverde should be enough to see him home.
The remaining obstacles of three stages in the Pyrenees and a testing time trial should ensure Nibali does not get ahead of himself. Referencing how Chris Horner got the better of him at last year's Vuelta a Espana, last week Nibali told The New York Times' Ian Austen (subscription required) "you should never underestimate anyone."
Nibali's dominance has been to the detriment of the competitiveness of this year's event from its mid-point onwards. With fellow favourites Alberto Contador and 2013 Tour winner Chris Froome out of the race, nobody has been able to keep up with "The Shark."
There was little he could do about his rivals getting injured. No matter your thoughts on the circumstances, Nibali is a likely champion whose success will undoubtedly benefit the sport of cycling.
Chiefly because of the brilliance of his riding in three memorable wins and a race-changing assault on the pave to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut. But also because of what the 29-year-old winning his first yellow jersey would mean for matters beyond this year's Tour de France.
The battle for yellow may be all but over. It is still, however, a procession worth savouring, even if it lacks some of the anticipated drama.
Providing Real Tour De France Competition for Team Sky
Nibali—then of Liquigas—was the only man to come close to troubling Team Sky in the 2012 Tour de France.
The word "troubling" is used loosely. He put up a valiant effort, but the British outfit controlled the race from the second weekend to the end. Even then he was still six minutes and 19 seconds behind the winner, Bradley Wiggins, and three-and-a-half minutes behind second-placed Froome.
Having favoured the Giro d'Italia ahead of the Tour, Nibali was absent last year as Froome eventually won in similarly comfortable fashion. The difference in 2013 was Movistar (starring the precocious Nairo Quintana) and Saxo-Tinkoff (led by Contador) had at least contributed to some uneasy moments for Sky—the latter notably in the famous crosswind-influenced day to Saint-Amand-Montrond.
Sky have not had all their own way in Grand Tours by any means. But their combination of finely tuned planning and scintillating improvisation from their leads has made them a daunting prospect for any cyclist or team hoping to win in France.
In a (hoped-for) new era of cycling, Dave Brailsford's group have been worthy commanders of cycling's most prestigious event.
Still, competition is always good. This year it has come in the form of Nibali, who has taken the race to them and then some.
Froome's injury-enforced exit obviously weakened Sky. Yet Nibali had already hinted at his form in his Stage 2 win, while on Stage 5 his crushing display could well have distanced the cobble-fearing Briton even if he was healthy (as it did Contador before the Spaniard's own departure the following week).
Froome's lieutenant and Sky's replacement leader, Richie Porte, was deemed to be a genuine competitor. One whom Nibali admitted to fearing, heading into this final week—via the Sydney Morning Herald's Rupert Guinness.
Instead, the Italian has gone about highlighting just how difficult winning a three-week race is. Heading into Stage 13 and the Alps Porte, he was second. Now he is 15th and behind by 16 minutes and 19 seconds.
Sky have come up against serious competition in the Tour. Now we have the tantalising prospect of finding out how they go about reclaiming the maillot jaune next year.
It Could Strengthen the Giro D'Italia...
Prior to its start in Belfast this year, Giro d'Italia race director Mauro Vegni expressed his unhappiness at the absence of certain big names—via the Associated Press' Andrew Dampf.
Nibali was one he excused. "Vincenzo won the Giro in such extraordinary style last year that it's only normal for him to try and win the Tour this year."
Vegni had nothing to worry about with his own race. It provided entertaining fare, with a clutch of young cyclists from Marcel Kittel to Fabio Aru and maglia rosa winner Nairo Quintana starring.
Less pleasingly for Vegni, instead of being spoken about purely as a triumph in its own right, the Colombian's landmark victory fueled talk of the Tour de France. Why would he not be riding this year's race, and what did it mean for his Tour prospects in 2015—as, for example, featured in an article by VeloNews' Andrew Hood.
The notion of Italy's Grand Tour becoming practice for those wanting to win future editions of the Tour de France would not go over well with the former's organisers. But there is another interpretation.
Should Nibali add a yellow jersey to his pink one from 2013, his success could be used to help reinforce the Giro as a multifaceted event that is a must-ride for those with GC ambitions.
Win and their name will be added to a list of victors that includes greats such as Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merckx and Miguel Indurain. In addition to adding a prestigious title to their palmares (or at least putting in a respectable tilt), their skills, condition and race-nous will have been honed in a grueling environment that will stand them in good stead for the Tour.
The unique challenges of the Giro d'Italia's own daunting climbs, and the race's place on the cycling calendar, mean it is not as clear-cut a decision as that sounds. But the sentiment certainly holds some truth.
It would be easy for the Giro to suffer from an inferiority complex to its French counterpart, especially with the latter's superior public profile. The wiser course of action would be to capitalise on it however it can.
...and the Tour De France, Too
The Tour de France's status as cycling's transcendent event does not mean it is easily able to shake its ties with its murky, drug-addled recent past.
"When asked, 12 of the 23 former Tour de France winners agreed that Lance Armstrong should have his seven Tour victories back"—so read a piece on Cycling News reporting on a survey conducted by Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf last week. The Texan looms over the sport even in retirement, disgraced and vilified.
It was not surprising more recent winners such as Cadel Evans, Froome and Bradley Wiggins disagreed with the notion of Armstrong being officially reinstated to the record books. Nor that the current race director, Christian Prudhomme, was vehemently against it, too.
Those four are either products or leading practitioners of an era that is desperate to move away from the doping-plagued era Armstrong's simultaneously impressive and dishonest feats defined.
Anyone winning La Grande Boucle clean deserves credit. With a fine three weeks behind him, Nibali completing his set of Grand Tour wins (he also won the Vuelta a Espana in 2010) would be a great achievement in the new age we hope cycling is gradually moving into.
Italian Cycling Needs New Heroes
As quoted by Cycling News' Barry Ryan on Monday's rest day, Nibali was keen to stress his clean credentials amid typical doping questioning from the media:
I've always been a standard-bearer for anti-doping. People ask these questions because they want to understand my story, my past and how I've developed year-by-year. With all the wins and my progress in the big tours, I've always improved step-by-step.
In addition to the Tour de France and Giro d'Italia, a law-abiding Nibali is also important to the overall health of Italian cycling.
One of the sport's traditional powers, its history and the beauty of the country itself will ensure it retains a sizable cachet a while yet.
But for a nation who have cherished great champions—from Alfredo Binda through to Gino Bartali and Coppi, Felice Gimondi and Francesco Moser—the uncertainty (both over talent and trust issues) that has plagued their modern predecessors has at least somewhat affected the sport's popularity on Italian shores.
There have been some cherished successes over the last decade from the likes of Paolo Bettini, Damiano Cunego and Ivan Basso, which remain unsullied in themselves, but have arguably been tarnished by issues elsewhere (especially in the latter's case).
The lighting rod above all others is the late Marco Pantani: The last Italian to win the Tour in 1998.
A decade on from his tragic death, Pantani was remembered in stages of this year's Giro d'Italia with stages designed to commemorate and ride through significant areas to do with his life. Fondly remembered by many, there are plenty of others who remain sceptical of his achievements given he was also found guilty of doping later on in his career.
Nibali's Giro win was a big boost for Italian cycling. Bringing home a yellow jersey would be another crucial tool in helping the country begin to build over its own controversial recent past and move back up in prominence.
"It's a shame fans didn't get to see an epic battle between three top riders in the Alps and Pyrenees, but it shouldn't be held against the sole survivor of that trio," Bleacher Report's Gianni Verschueren wrote in reference to Nibali's Tour performance, sans Contador and Froome.
"Nibali has done everything right so far during the 2014 Tour de France, and when he crosses the finish line in Paris, he should be applauded for just that," Verschueren continued.
Should the Astana rider stand atop the Champs-Elysees podium in yellow, there will be some who seek to diminish his glory. But to survive and excel as he has, and to do so for one last week, he will be a more-than-worthy winner.
The excitement then will be over the future possibilities such a triumph would entail.
Nibali would not be at the Vuelta a Espana, in which the aforementioned pair hope to return in August and salvage their Grand Tour ambitions for 2014. But he would cross paths with them and the other widely held future contender for Tour de France victory, Nairo Quintana, soon enough.
For the first time in his career, with the oft-discussed victor's target on his back, Nibali will truly have become the hunted rather than the hunter.
Such a twist to the contest between cycling's premier general classification contenders would be a welcome development, indeed.