MODANE, France: Vincenzo Nibali’s defense of the Tour de France title he won in 2014 may have failed but the Italian proved he was a proud warrior with victory on the 19th stage.
The 30-year-old Sicilian came into the Tour hoping to become the first rider to defend the title since the last of Spaniard Miguel Indurain’s five wins in 1995.
But he had a poor first week and then cracked on the first Pyrenean mountain stage, virtually destroying any hopes he had of overall victory.
At the end of that stage 10 he found himself 10th overall and almost seven minutes behind Chris Froome.
However, he has kept fighting and kept trying, particularly in the Alps, and his victory on Friday moved him up to fourth at 6min 44sec.
He is only 1min 19sec behind Alejandro Valverde in the third— the final podium position.
Last year, Froome and Alberto Contador both crashed out of the Tour and Nibali cruised to victory ahead of the unlikely French pair of Jean-Christophe Peraud and Thibaut Pinot.
But the Italian denied that it was stronger competition this year that has seen him struggle.
“I’m not disappointed, not every year is the same,” he said.
“It’s difficult to compare. Last year I was already ready from the first week, I was much stronger than this year.
“We’re not machines, we’re people. Sometimes you have a better or worse year.
“Look at Alberto (Contador, now fifth overall), he was going very well this Tour having also won the Giro, but it’s difficult to win this Tour.
“It’s not easy to win every time, particularly given you have rivals, so that’s normal.”
Last year, Nibali won the second stage in Sheffield and then took control of the Tour with a brilliant ride to finish third on the cobbled fifth stage in terrible weather.
He never looked back from there but his start to this year’s Tour was fraught with problems.
He had a good opening timetrial but a day later lost a minute and a half to Froome and Contador after being caught behind a crash on the windy stage from Utrecht to Zeeland.
His Astana team gave up another 35-seconds in the team timetrial and then he had his problems in the Pyrenees, losing five and a half minutes to Froome over two stages.
“The Tour has been very difficult for me but it’s been getting better,” said Nibali.
“The first week was very hard but the second week was a bit better, although I paid for my efforts at the end of stages.
“My legs have been much better this last week.”
In comparison to last year, though, Nibali admits he’s been lacking a bit of punch.
“In this last week I’ve been better, although everyone’s a little more tired now,” he said.
“Last year I was more explosive, that’s how I remember it, although in terms of tempo and consistency it’s been the same.”
He won four stages and the Tour a year ago but with one stage win and a podium to fight for on Saturday’s final Alpine stage up to Alpe d’Huez, he’s hoping to maintain his strong recent showing in Grand Tours.
In his last nine Grand Tours, he’s only once failed to reach the podium, finishing seventh at the 2011 Vuelta a España.