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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  8/1/2014

Vinnie, Vidi, Vici

This is August, so that means the Greatest Show on Earth, the Tour de France, was last month. Now that the Grand Boucle is behind us, we can savor the sensations of those three glorious weeks, those 21 stages covering 3653 kilometers. Even including the single time trial of "only" 54 K, that still works out to an average of 178 K for each stage…108 miles per day. (I just returned from a nine-stage tour of about 600 miles--averaging 67 miles a day at touring pace--and the challenge of getting on the bike again each morning…let's just say I have once again had my appreciation rekindled for what those hard boys do in a big stage race.)

The hardest of all the hard boys this year was Vincenzo Nibali. If you've read these columns over the years, you know I'm a big fan of Vinnie. But I'm an even bigger fan now, post-Tour. Last year, after he won the Giro d'Italia (and following his win at the Vuelta in 2010), I said we should now consider him a true campionissimo. An Italian friend objected, saying only Fausto Coppi can be called campionissimo. So okay, I'll retract that accolade…but we will need to replace it with some other laurels that carry enough gravitas to do justice to what he has accomplished. Just consider the company he now keeps. Only five other riders have won all three of the Grand Tours: Jacques Anquetil, Felice Gimondi, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, and Alberto Contador. That's a rather elite group, to say the least.

After last year's victory in the Giro, I said this about him: "Nibali's assorted attacks didn't have the panache and swagger of the most impressive moments from some past champions. We weren't dazzled by dancing on the pedals or spectacular fireworks. But he got the job done. When he needed to be, he was faster than the rest of the contenders, and, in the end, by a wide margin." (That "wide margin" in the Giro was 4:43 over second place Rigoberto Uran. This year, in the Tour, his margin over second place Jean-Christophe Péraud was an even more impressive 7:37.) I'm mentioning that Giro observation because the thing that made this Tour different for Nibali was that he did indeed have a great deal of panache and swagger. He showed he was ready to rumble right from the start, with a cheeky little attack on Stage 2…busting a move off the front of a building field sprint to solo in for a win and a first fitting for a yellow jersey.

He won three more times, all on mountaintop finishes, and in all three stages, he showed great confidence in his form, attacking off the front of the climbers' group and riding off into the distance to win comfortably. Without digging into the record books, I can't recall any Tour winners in recent history who have won four stages. (Sprinters sometimes win that many stages in one Tour, but the GC guys? Not too often.) He was on top of his own game and on top of his rivals throughout…a thoroughly dominant performance. There was only one day when he lost time on a hilltop finish--or any other finish--to any of his chief rivals, and that was on the rainy Stage 8, where he marked Alberto Contador all the way up the hill and conceded three measly seconds.

Speaking of Contador… I'm as tired as Nibali is of hearing that the results would have been different if Contador and Froome had not crashed out. Let's take that notion out back and shoot it, right now. There should be no asterisk after Nibali's name in the TdF record books. A Grand Tour is supposed to reward an all-rounder: someone who can climb, sprint, time trial, descend, and who has excellent bike handling skills for all sorts of conditions. Nibali is considered one of the best bike handlers of this or any other era. He can gain time on a downhill as well as he can on an uphill. And as he so emphatically demonstrated on the rainy cobbles of Stage 5, he can handle adverse conditions very well too…better, in that case, than any of the other GC hopefuls. (He took at least two minutes out of all his main rivals on that "flat" stage.)

Fans of the sport will argue endlessly about whether Froome's and Contador's crashes were down to their own operator error or whether they were just bad luck. In the end, it doesn't matter. You know the old saying: you make your own luck. Contador, Froome, Talansky, Van Garderen, Andy Schleck, and many others all crashed, early and often. Nibali didn't. Call it better skills or a smile from Dame Fortune. Either way, he got it right while all the others were flopping around like fish on a dock.

Nibali also had his head in the game better than his rivals. In spite of having to endure the extra fuss and bother of being the yellow jersey wearer for all but two stages of the three-week race, he remained tranquillo throughout. He was calm and concentrated, always aware of any developing situations…never caught by surprise. That was no accident.

With Nibali so much in charge, a good deal of the suspense swirled around the rest of the top ten: who could clamber onto the remaining two steps of the podium? Old war horse Allejandro Valverde spent much of the three weeks clinging to a podium spot but in the final days--in the mountains and in the time trial--he ran out of gas and fell down the standings to 4th. 

The two young Americans, Tejay Van Garderen and Andrew Talansky, started the race with great expectations. Both looked good early on, but ended up heading in opposite directions. Tejay lost two minutes on the cobbles and wet roads of Stage 5, then another minute to a minor crash on Stage 7, and finally, over three minutes to his GC cohort on Stage 16. But he hung in there and looked good the rest of the time, and eventually, with some strong mountain finishes and a very good time trial--just ten seconds behind Nibali--he clawed his way back to fifth overall at the end.

Talansky, coming off his stunning win at the Dauphiné, was poised to do something great, but it all fell apart for him, with two (or was it three?) crashes that beat him up badly, leaving him with a painfully wrenched lower back. He soldiered on, but on a lumpy Stage 11, he hit a physical and emotional wall. He stopped at one point--as the peloton moved on--and got a sympathetic talking-to from his DS Robbie Hunter. And then, with tears streaming down his face, he climbed back on his bike and continued, in great pain, grinding out the miles like a bonking century rider, finally finishing just a few minutes inside the time cut-off. Given that he did not start the next day, it would have made much better sense to have climbed in the team car when he first stopped. That he kept going for all those painful miles--riding to honor his teammates, as he put it later--was a heroic gesture and one that earned him a lot of fans around the world. Tejay and Andrew will both be back.

The big news--mostly unexpected--was the excellent showing of a new generation of French riders: Jean-Christophe Péraud (2nd), Thibaut Pinot (3rd) and Romain Bardet (6th). Okay, at 37, Péraud is not exactly a newbie. He's been around the block a few times, with a fair amount of success along the way. But Pinot (24) and Bardet (23) are still youngsters, just figuring out how good they can be. If they can improve their time trials, they could be factors for years to come. Also making a splash this year: Czech Leopold König (26), a brilliant climber who can also drill the ITT…four seconds behind Nibali. Look for him to land a plumb contract with a big-budget team for next year…an organization that can build a strong team to support him.

So an unalloyed, solid gold performance from Vincenzo Nibali. He's still only 29. Who knows what else he might do with the best years of his career still ahead of him? As for the "what-if" brigade--Froome and Contador and several others--we might see some of them at the Vuelta. Not Contador. His broken leg won't mend that fast. But almost certainly Froome. He's back to training hard. In fact, he has been spotted riding in Sonoma County, hanging out with Levi and a few other hot shots. On August 2nd, our Santa Rosa Cycling Club stalwart Marc Moons was competing in the Mount Tam Double Century. (He won in a course record of 10:44.) As he was leading the charge up the steep climb of Coleman Valley, he looked over to see this tall, skinny rider in Team Sky kit, catching and passing him…WTF? It was Chris Froome, who said hi before spinning on up the hill. We'll see if his Sonoma County miles stand him in good stead in the Vuelta.

But before we look ahead to the hills of Spain, let's look back one more time to the wonderful month of July and all the drama and trauma it brought us, from the rock-ribbed hills of York to the rain-slick cobbles of Paris-Roubaix country; from the hard climbs of the Vosges through the harder climbs of the Alps and Pyrenees. Thanks to the riders, the soigneurs, the moto-drivers, the technicians, and all the rest of the supporting cast who made it all possible.…what a spectacle.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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