By Jamey Keaten
CARCASSONNE, France (AP) — 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 while in the 2010 Vuelta Nibali’s runner-up, Ezequiel Mosquera, later tested positive for a masking agent that can hide blood-booster EPO — long cycling’s designer drug.
But on the rest day Monday 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 embarked Tuesday on three days in the Pyrenees mountains, Nibali led 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 was third, 4:50 back, and fellow Frenchman Thibaut Pinot was fourth: 5:06 behind. American Tejay van Garderen was 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.
Those who know Nibali well say 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.”