The Case for Nibali

The Case for Nibali

As the 2014 Tour de France races toward Paris, Vincenzo Nibali continues to ride in a class of his own. Amid the predictable and spastic cries of “Doper!” from trolls and imbecilli, a case can be made that we are witnessing the work of a true champion. Rather than let the loudest, most negative voice rule the day, we decided to make the case for why we are willing to believe.

We Saw This Coming – Part One
Nibali has been an exceptional talent demonstrating steady progression. Check his palmares, and you’ll find no erratic jumps in performance, just continuous improvement.

We Saw This Coming – Part Two
Nibali targeted the 2014 Tour de France after finishing on the podium in 2012, choosing to race the Giro and Vuelta in 2013 … where he did pretty well. For 2014, only one race truly mattered, the Tour, and he trained accordingly.

Aren’t His Performances Too Good to Be True?
No. Looking at the results stage-by-stage, Nibali’s time gains were marginal. He raced intelligently, using his team well and timing his attacks carefully (reference stage 5). Even with his outstanding form and focus, his stage wins and time gains came in smaller chunks with assorted rivals not extraordinarily far behind.

What About Froome?
It wasn’t looking like Froome’s year. Perhaps the crash in the Criterium du Dauphiné disrupted his rhythm. Maybe he wasn’t quite at the same level as 2013 (or 2012, for that matter). Both Froome and his Sky squad simply did not have the dominant appearance of years past.

And Contador?
Nibali rode like a boss and emerged from the cobbles of stage 5 with a 2:37 lead over Alberto Contador. Given the lumpy course profile of the final time trial, I think it’s safe to say that Contador would have needed to recover that time elsewhere. Looking at the way Nibali performed across all terrain and conditions, erasing that deficit would prove a tall order. While it would have been a fun battle to watch, the advantage remained with Nibali.

But, don’t you think the absence of previous champions lessens Nibali’s victory?
In order to finish first, one must first finish. What if Richie Porte hadn’t had a bad day? What if Alejandro Valverde raced smarter? What if Greg Lemond were 25 years younger or Merckx incarnate descended upon the race? What if blah, blah, blah. All the “What ifs?” may make for entertaining armchair directeur sportif-ing, but they have little bearing on the value of a champion’s accomplishment.

While the credibility of professional cycling certain merits skepticism, epithets and innuendo simply accelerate a race to the bottom. What if the sport is in the midst of rebuilding its integrity, and Nibali’s impending victory is the rightful result of talent, training, teamwork, and timing? If evidence shall be required to support accusations, what is needed to restore credibility?

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20 comments

  1. SusanJane

    The doubter are one thing. The haters are something else entirely. The doubters are open to evidence and reasoned consideration — the media must address these people. The haters are do different then any zealot because their agenda is going to be unchanged no matter what. I am finding more evidence and logic in the media. I’ve been reading wider this Tour including the BBC, American news services, even the New York Times. They are taking the Tour more seriously, not just quoting t.v. coverage or L’equipe. I watched Bjarne Riis EPO power up the Hautacam today and there is no comparison with what Nibali just did. Perspective helps most people. Stats like how long it took various riders to make the same assent and the history of that event goes a long ways toward understanding. Froth does not fix anything. David Walsh had an agenda but he was also trying to find the truth. I think we all want the truth — the doubters want to know that nothing is being hidden any more, and the feats of strength and courage are honest.

  2. Larry T.

    Nice job! The Froomey’s and Pistolero fans were heard during the Dauphine saying that Nibali’s not at their level, he’s clearly inferior to them. But LeTour comes later and by then both of those guys were past their peaks while Nibali was just rounding into form as planned. Add in that he’s a racer’s racer, unafraid to TRY to win rather than race not to lose, plus one of the best bike handlers currently racing. I believe it’s clear he would have won even if Froome and Contador were not the victims of self-induced crashes. His progress in the sport has been steady and gradual rather than sudden and unexplainable. Until proven otherwise I’ll believe he won on class and determination and brought panache back into the vocabulary used to describe LeTour. W Nibali!

  3. Chris J.

    Nicely reasoned, and I’m in full agreement. When people start with the what-if arguments, my usual response is one word: “Scoreboard.”

  4. Aar

    Color me a doubter. The consistency and comparative ease with which Nibbles rides away whenever he chooses does not pass the eye test. None of riding for Astana, beating Valverde nor leading Contador when he crashed out do anything to promote one’s reputation as a clean rider. I’d like to see his comparisons with past doped and clean ascents of the same mountains. I’d also like to see him (Wiggins and Froome too, for that matter) retire many years from now without a doping positive in his career. My jury is still out on Froome’s 2013 win as well.

    To his credit, he has been on an upward trajectory throughout his career, prepared thoroughly for this Tour, kept the rubber side down and only had to work at the ends of critical stages. His ride over the cobbles on stage 5 was one for the ages and he gets huge props for that. Unfortunately, all of that can be said of the most notorious doper in Tour history too.

    I hope my doubts are disproven over time.

  5. Rob

    The only stage that strains credulity for me is stage 5, when he and a teammate rode away from the likes of Cancellara, Vanmarche, etc. On cobbles!

    As for the climbing stages, he’s always been solid. And from what I’ve seen of his estimated w/kg for various climbs, they’re not unbelievable.

    Boy, but that stage 5, I dunno.

    1. adam

      But there were circumstances to that stage 5; Kwiatkowski was behind Nibbles and Jacob and flatted with Cancellara and Sagan behind him. If it were a dry day, no problem, Cancellara and Sagan go around him, but being wet they had to stay on the ridge let the gap open and try and close it paced sections. Neither wanted to drag the other back to the front, so they’re hesitating and while Westra is killing himself to open the time gaps.

  6. Rod

    Veloclinic has comparative tables for W/kg and times up climbs. For what is worth, the Hautacam climb was the 27th fastest. First? Riis himself. Ack.

    As for “Froome or Contador could ride faster if they hadn’t crashed out”… well, it’s hard to win a race without keeping the rubber side down. Even doped up. Ask Rasmussen. Or if you want a different historical perspective, maybe we should diminish Merckx tour win in 1971 when Ocaña crashed.

    It’s just silly. Racing is not power/weight contest in the lab. You need also nerve, tactical sense, and bike handling skills amongst some attributes (like adaptability – I’m looking at you, Team Sky). A Grand Tour shouldn’t be a 3 week proxy for an uphill TT.

    1. Rod

      And while I don’t agree with all they propose, the blog “Science in Sport” states that in general speeds have gone down. They don’t posit that doping is eradicated, just that it’s harder to dope substantially without tripping the Biopassport. As a result, non-doping athletes are more competitive in the field. And insane performances stick out more (see Ricco, Ricardo).

      So not a “clean” field, just that doping has decreased in magnitude (if not in frequency).

  7. Les.B.

    To add to Rod statement on racing, there is also the random hand of “luck”. Get bumped by another rider, hit a cobble in just the wrong way….

    Sports activities have rules to soften this hand, but luck is a big part of any sport and it’s right that it is because this is the real world.

  8. Maremma Mark

    In the long run it’s safe and easy to doubt, you don’t need to analyze very much or put your convictions to the test of empirical evidence. How many times have I heard “they’re all on a program, screw them?” Well actually they’re not all on a program, believe it or not there were racers who competed clean even back in the No Limits days of Rijs, Armstrong and the rest of that crew. Hopefully we can all agree that big steps have been taken since then to clean up this sport. More work is necessary, the culture of winning at any cost also needs to be addressed but hasn’t cycle racing begun that process? I know, it will never be perfect, we’ll never be able to fully believe beyond a shadow of doubt. In that respect racing is a bit like life. There is always uncertainty.

    Nibali deserves respect from my point of view, having followed his progression over the years it appears to me a logical and natural growth. Obviously he has huge talent but it’s taken years of incredible hard work, being an understudy to older team leaders, refining, racing, losing yet more weight, tweaking and living like a monk to reach this moment of near perfect form. In today’s Gazzetta dello Sport his trainer Paolo Slongo said that it’s unlikely Nibali will reach this state of grace again, his form is literally %100. Which isn’t simply a state of optimal physical condition, it’s also and perhaps more importantly, a state of psychic strength. If it were just a case of who had stronger legs than perhaps it would be odd to see a rider like Nibali ride away on rain slicked cobbles. But that was as much about his head and competitive spirit as it was his legs and bike handling skills. And don’t forget, few riders in the peleton can handle their bikes like Nibali.

    I respect the sacrifices it takes to reach these heights of excellence. Who amongst us would be capable of similar discipline and yeoman work loads? For all my passion for riding I know I wouldn’t be. I also know I’m way out on a limb here.

    1. Larry T.

      I agree except we’ve heard the ‘hard work” stuff before from you-know-who. Class and talent don’t come out of a syringe. This kid’s got both and determination as well. W Nibali!

    2. Alex TC

      Very well said. The Tour and cycling in general should not be all about the main favourites. Nibali just proved that a true champion is always ready and prepared, both mentally and physically. So much so that he was in yellow even before his main opponents had to abandon. A worthy winner without question!

  9. spiff

    I still think that Contador had it in him to win, he’s a better racer and his team was stellar this year. And He had a bit more sting in his ail than the others. And, I’m sure he would not have been caught off guard again like he was in June.

  10. MCH

    To pacify all the what-iffers I propose a simple solution: at the beginning of June all major tour contenders will meet in a neutral sports lab. They’ll each run a series of tests, VO2 max, LT, etc. The rider with the highest numbers is declared the winner of the Tour. This way we’ll know who’s strongest and we won’t have to deal with all of this silly racing.

  11. ETO

    I too have hope the field is cleaner, the incentive to ride clean greater.
    I only wish Nibali wasn’t riding for a director the likes of Vinokourov.
    Being associated with his likes diminishes Nibali’s accomplishments.

  12. debbie in alamo heights

    “the predictable and spastic cries of “Doper!” from trolls and imbecilli.”

    Nibali could be clean, but given the very recent history of the sport I’m not sure I’d want my name attached to that quote 5-6 years from now. Insulting the doubters worked for a while, but “fool me once” came to mind when I read that line in this article.

  13. Call me a doubter

    I want to believe, but then I read stuff like Veloclinic’s assessment of Nibali’s 2014 Tour performance versus the podiums from 2002-07:

    “Nibali, like the 2013 podium, would likely have been competitive when compared to the 2002-2007 podium baseline as illustrated by the DpVAM analysis. The remainder of this years podium would not.

    “The question then comes down to progress. In 6-7 years, have riders been able to make performances gains that were once universally held as unfathomable from a clean rider?”

    It’s hard to imagine that is true.

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