LEEDS, England (VN) — Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) began one of his biggest races yet when the Tour de France rolled out of Leeds Saturday morning. Already third in the Tour, and the winner of the other two grand tours, the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España, the Italian champion said he knows that this is his time to shine.
“I believe in my chances, I’ve been going better and better each year in the stage races,” Nibali said. “I’ve shown to be able to race at the high level. If I haven’t won, then I’ve been in the top three. This Tour will be big for me, but it’s not the last one, either.”
The 29-year-old from Sicily placed seventh in 2009 and third in 2012 behind Sky’s Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome. After joining Astana, he focused on winning the 2013 Giro. The team wanted him to bag his home race, the next biggest stage race after the Tour, before returning to France.
Over the winter, Astana signed his former trainer Paolo Slongo from Cannondale and domestiques like Lieuwe Westra and Michele Scarponi to help Nibali. Team manager Giuseppe Martinelli tailored Nibali’s schedule around the Tour, sending him to French stage races like Paris-Nice to get into the mood.
“I also faced other big races before this Tour,” Nibali said. “This is big, but it’s almost on the same level as last year’s Giro, where there was a lot of pressure and the level was high. Everyone knew that we were there to win the Giro d’Italia and that added up to create a lot of pressure.”
Nibali rolled out of Leeds in the Italian tricolor jersey, having won the national road race championship the previous weekend in Trentino. That marked his first win of the year — a much needed one.
Rumors went around at the start of the Critérium du Dauphiné two weeks ago that Astana’s top brass was not pleased with the way Nibali had been performing. Italy’s La Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper reported that general manager Alexander Vinokourov sent Nibali an e-mail to express his concern.
“We want big results,” the e-mail reportedly read. “We don’t want excuses, ifs and buts. We are not interested in reasons, but results. Up until now, we have not seen them. Like this, things aren’t going well for us.”
Nibali told VeloNews that the story was “not true” and “crazy,” and explained that Vinokourov simply wrote everyone in the team to remind them to remain focused on the main event, the Tour de France.
“I’ve really only done two races ahead of this Tour de France,” Nibali said. “In the Dauphiné, I was just there to watch and to observe, I couldn’t do much more. We worked well leading up to this, we tested ourselves at the Italian championships.
“I feel more or less at the same level [as I was when I began the Giro last year]. I can’t say if I am stronger or not, there are so many variables, all you need is a cold to upset you and lose 10 percent.”
Astana, which signed Nibali through 2016, pays around €4m ($5.44 million) annually. Nibali may feel that he has many Tours ahead of him, but will also know that he cannot afford to let any opportunities slip through his hands and that he needs a third place or better in Paris.
“I’d say no to another third place, but given I’m at the Tour with the best in cycling, it’d be a great result to have again,” Nibali said. “But clearly, I don’t want to finish third again — I want more for myself and the team Astana.”