CARCASSONNE, France – Barring a disaster for him on French roads from Tuesday until Sunday, the man who looks set to win the Tour de France says he understands cycling is still paying for its longtime doping plague.
Italian Vincenzo Nibali knows that more than many. Both of cycling’s other “Grand Tours” he has already won were marred by doping cases.
Last year’s Giro d’Italia was tarnished by three positive tests. In the 2010 Spanish Vuelta, Nibali’s runner-up, Ezequiel Mosquera, later tested positive for a masking agent that can hide blood-booster EPO — long the sport’s designer drug.
But on a Tour de France rest day Monday before the pack heads to the Pyrenees, the serene, talented and methodical 29-year-old rider for the Astana team was focusing on the race, saying he wants to make sure he avoids a “crisis” like the crashes that forced out rivals such as 2013 Tour champion Chris Froome and two-time winner Alberto Contador. In post-stage news conferences, Nibali has confidently fielded and answered questions about doping.
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“Unfortunately, those questions arise because we’re paying (for) the past years. I try to answer in the most correct way, like I already did at the Giro last year,” Nibali said after Sunday’s 15th stage. “I’m here to give the best answers I can, and clarify everything about myself.”
“I’ve always been a flag-bearer of anti-doping.”
As the race embarks Tuesday on three days in the Pyrenees mountains, Nibali leads Movistar rider Alejandro Valverde — a Spaniard who once served a two-year ban after being implicated in a blood-doping ring — by 4 minutes, 37 seconds. Romain Bardet is third, 4:50 back.
A few components go into the calculation to understand those gaps, after more than 66 hours of total racing since the Tour’s start in England on July 5. They include Nibali’s nearly indomitable performance in the mountains, which often prove crucial to separating the strong contenders for the Tour title from the rest of the pack; his relative strength in the time trial, which looms on the next-to-last race day; and the luxury Nibali has: To focus on the few riders who could threaten him. If any one of them tries a breakaway in the coming days, expect Nibali and his team to lay chase.
“Over the years, I’ve really learned a lot from all the big races: That every second counts,” Nibali said.
“You can never know.”
Nibali combines innate cycling skill, a well-honed physique and a tough training regimen.
“There’s a lot of work behind winning a Grand Tour … there are no strange recipes,” said Paolo Slongo, Nibali’s longtime trainer.