ARGELES-GAZOST, France – As his team hoped, Vincenzo Nibali demonstrated he’s the “boss” of the Tour de France. Just don’t compare him to the last rider to regularly bear that sobriquet at cycling’s greatest race, Lance Armstrong.
In a tour de force on Thursday, Nibali blew away the peloton on a Pyrenees ascent too tough to be rated in Stage 18, all but locking up victory when the race concludes in Paris in three days.
Nibali has combined racing smarts, skill at bike-handling, and powerful climbing legs to methodically piece together a lead of more than seven minutes, gaining seconds “here and there,” as he put it after his fourth stage win.
That margin, if it holds, would be the second largest in 25 years: Jan Ullrich won by more than nine minutes in 1997. Armstrong won five of his seven titles from 1999 to 2005 by more than six minutes, but that long string victories was stripped after he was exposed as a doping cheat.
The last Italian to win the Tour was “The Pirate,” Marco Pantani, in 1998. Nibali too knows about nicknames.
His family calls him Enzino. An attacking rider, he’s been known as the “Shark of the Straits” in reference to the Strait of Messina off Sicily. One from his boyhood re-emerged on Thursday after the win at Hautacam resort: “Flea of the Pyrenees” – a nod to its first bearer, Vincent Treuba of Spain, decades ago.
Nibali has not been impressed by comparisons with the disgraced Armstrong.
“I came to the Tour with a good preparation and a good team. But I’m not a boss like Lance Armstrong was,” he said through a translator. “Let’s leave the past behind us. I’m very clear about myself.”
As a “flag-bearer of anti-doping,” he notes his career ascension has been gradual. He won the 2010 Spanish Vuelta and the 2013 Giro d’Italia, putting him on track to become only the sixth rider ever to win all three Grand Tours.
The Italian has worn the yellow jersey for all but two days: That was last achieved by Armstrong nine years ago.