Barring a disaster for him on French roads from now until Sunday, the man who looks set to win the Tour de France says he understands that cycling is still paying for its longtime doping plague.
Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali knows that more than many.
Both of cycling’s other “Grand Tours” that he has already won were marred by doping cases.
Last year’s Giro d’Italia was tarnished by three positive tests and, in the 2010 Vuelta, Nibali’s runner-up, Ezequiel Mosquera, later tested positive for a masking agent that can hide blood-booster EPO – cycling’s designer drug.
But on Monday’s rest day before the pack heads to the Pyrenees, the serene, talented and methodical 29-year-old Italian was focusing on the race, saying he wants to make sure he avoids a “crisis” like the crashes that forced out rivals 2013 Tour champ Chris Froome and two-time winner Alberto Contador.
In post-stage news conferences, he has confidently fielded and answered questions about doping.
“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 Stage 15.
“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 prepares to embark on three days in the Pyrenees mountains, Nibali leads Alejandro Valverde – a 34-year-old 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, and fellow Frenchman Thibaut Pinot is fourth, 5:06 behind. American Tejay van Garderen is fifth, 5:49 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 Yorkshire, 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 that 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 strong Astana team to lay chase.
He’ll be keeping close watch in Tuesday’s 237.5-kilometre Stage 16 from Carcassonne to Bagneres-de-Luchon in the Pyrenees.
It’s the longest stage this year and features the punishing Port de Bales climb.
In this race, Nibali has shown maturity – by cannily winning Stage 2 – and exceptional bike control, such as over the cobblestones in Stage 5.
In that stage, Froome crashed out due to injury and Nibali nibbled more than 2 minutes on Contador, forcing the Spaniard to start contemplating how to attack. Five stages later, he too crashed out.
“Over the years, I’ve really learned a lot from all the big races: That every second counts,” Nibali said.
“You can never know.”
Those who know Nibali well says he combines innate cycling skill, a well-honed physique and a tough training regimen.
“We still need to win the Tour but we’re in a good position,” said Paolo Slongo, Nibali’s longtime trainer, at the team’s hotel Monday.
“There’s a lot of work behind winning a Grand Tour … there are no strange recipes.”