Nibali’s journey from Sicily ends in yellow in Paris

The 29-year-old Italian, as soft-spoken in life as aggressive as he is on the bike, joined Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault, Alberto Contador and his compatriot Felice Gimondi as winners of all three grands tours.


The son of Giovanna and Salvatore, who own a movie rental shop, Nibali quickly realised riding his bike around the local streets would not be enough to emulate Gimondi.

“With my father, we would watch videos of Merckx, Gimondi, Sarroni, Moser,” the humble Nibali said.

“But I can also talk about Hinault, Bobet. I know their story.”

In a region where family ties are like glue, leaving home could have been a heart-breaking move, but Nibali learnt to love his independence. He moved from Messina to Tuscany to ride at junior level under the guidance of sports director Carlo Franceschi in the Mastromarco team. Nibali, who lived at Franceschi’s home, quickly impressed, taking third place in the junior time trial world championships in 2002 and third again in the Under-23 world championships.

But just like Contador, he is not one to be content with second or third. The chisel-featured Nibali is an attacker and he long paid a heavy price for it.

In the 2011 Tour of Lombardy, one of the most prestigious one-day races, he attacked in the descent of the Madonna del Ghisallo, some 50 kilometres from the finish.

He was caught, but the move was as bold as it was brilliant. In 2012, he was the only rider to attack a dominant Team Sky in the mountains. He never managed to break the British outfit’s stranglehold on the race, but that is how Nibali rides.

On this year’s Tour, he took the yellow jersey in the second stage after a late attack caught his rivals cold in Sheffield. This time, he was not caught.

Instead of playing it conservatively, Nibali was on the attack on all terrains, distancing Contador in the pouring rain on the treacherous cobbled stage to Arenberg as Britain’s defending champion Chris Froome crashed out.

After Contador was also forced out following a crash in a descent on stage 10, the Astana rider’s lead was not to be threatened, yet the ‘Shark of Messina’ attacked again in the mountains, taking his fourth stage win at the top of Hautacam, a mystic pass draped in eerie fog.


In a sport that was long marred by doping scandals, however, myth has often been mixed with disenchantment.

Nibali is no exception to the habit of making Tour de France champions prime suspects. Bradley Wiggins and Froome, in the wake of the Lance Armstrong scandal, faced repeated grillings over their ethics.

Nibali, the first Italian to win the Tour since the late Maro Pantani in 1998, inevitably had to answer doping-related questions as comparisons were drawn with his disgraced compatriot who was known as “the Pirate”.

“It’s hard to make a comparison between what Pantani did so many years ago and what I’ve done now because Marco won his Tour in the last week, while it was the opposite for me,” Nibali said.

“I took the jersey after two days, I don’t know what to say.”

He will visit Pantani’s mother to give her one of his yellow jerseys because he admired her son.

“I loved his bravery,” he said.

Nibali chose to leave his Liquigas team to work at Astana with manager Alexandre Vinokourov, who served a two-year ban for blood doping on the 2007 Tour de France.

“Astana is a team who invested a lot in an Italian group, precisely because they wanted to give it credibility and because they wanted to change their image,” said Nibali.

“They didn’t just choose me, they also brought in (coach) Paolo Slongo. Let me remind everyone that I worked with him when I was 17 in the national team, together with Antonio Fusi.”

Nibali did not wait to be questioned on the Tour to speak out against doping.

Eight years ago, he said that dopers should be locked up and this year, after former team mate Danilo Di Luca said that it was impossible to win a grand tour without doping, he commented: “I can only think that he has become a bit brain-damaged.”

On Saturday, after his fourth place in the final time trial effectively secured his Tour title, Nibali was questioned again.

“It is true that in 2008, I felt a bit sad and disappointed. I wanted the white jersey (for the best Under-25 rider). But a lot of progress has been made and we can see the results now,” said Nibali.

“If there had not been all these controls, targeted controls, the biological passport, maybe I would not be here.”

(Editing by Ed Osmond)

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Pinot leads the way for new French generation

Veteran Jean-Christophe Peraud and youngster Thibaut Pinot finished second and third overall behind Italy’s dominant Vincenzo Nibali with Romain Bardet in sixth place.


While Peraud, 37, may never feature on the Tour podium again, Pinot and Bardet both have long careers ahead of them as they lead a new generation of bold Frenchmen.

In a sport continually fighting the stigma of drugs, France has been at the forefront of the battle against doping, and for years – when the blood-boosting EPO was ravaging the peloton – stage wins and occasional spells in yellow were the reward.

But in 2008 the implementation of the biological passport started to level the playing field, as this year’s Tour champion Nibali has pointed out.

Since Laurent Fignon and Bernard Hinault posted a French one-two in Paris in 1984, the host nation have never had two men on the podium and the last local who triumphed on the Champs Elysees was Hinault in 1985.

Will there be another one soon? Possibly, said Pinot, who was 10th overall in 2012.

“It is possible, yes, but in the two or three coming years we’re going to be too short,” said the 24-year-old.

“I’m still far from Nibali, I’m more than eight minutes behind him. But in 2012 I was 18 minutes behind (overall winner Bradley) Wiggins.

“But Romain (Bardet) and I still have 10 years to ride so there is time.”

Both have been backed by teams supported by sponsors who stayed despite the drugs scandals.

Pinot’s team have been in the sport since 1997 while Peraud and Bardet’s Ag2R-La Mondiale team started their involvement in cycling in 1992.

“When they arrived they just asked us not to do anything stupid,” manager Marc Madiot said as he paid tribute to his long-time sponsor.


“Thibaut (Pinot) is the symbol of the renewal of French cycling.”

“It shows that tenacity and hard work pay off,” said Peraud.

Pinot finished his first Tour in 2012 in 10th place overall, becoming the youngest top 10 finisher since 1947 before taking seventh place overall in last year’s Vuelta, the Tour of Spain.

Bardet, 23, was 15th in his first Tour last year and he long held provisional third this year before Pinot cracked him in the Pyrenees.

Another possible contender in the near future is Warren Barguil, 22, who was left out of his Giant-Shimano squad as they made their selection around sprinter Marcel Kittel of Germany.

Barguil last year won two mountain stages in the Vuelta at the age of 21.

“Barguil is a huge talent,” said Hinault.

France also have the chance to shine on grand tour stages and one-day races with a few sprint specialists rapidly working their way up the ranks.

French champion Arnaud Demare, 22, already has a few decent placings in classics while Nacer Bouhanni, 24, won three sprint stages on this year’s Grio d’Italia, of which he claimed the red jersey for the points classification.

The 22-year-old Bryan Coquard, who won silver on the track in the omnium at the London 2012 Games, switched to the road and finished third in the points classification on the Tour.

“In the next few years, the green jersey could be a target,” he said.

(Reporting by Julien Pretot, editing by Tony Goodson and Martyn Herman)

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Mercedes ready to put focus on driver duel

“Maybe what we decided at the beginning of the season doesn’t function any more,” team boss Toto Wolff told reporters at the Hungarian Grand Prix on Sunday.


“We cannot really ask either driver to give up their position or jeopardise their own championship chances for the benefit of the team,” added the Mercedes motorsport head.

Hamilton refused a request in the race to allow championship-leading team mate Rosberg, who had started on pole but was behind him on a different strategy and still had a pitstop to make, through.

The message ‘don’t hold him up’ was made twice to Hamilton, who eventually finished third with Rosberg fourth, over the radio with a third of the race remaining.

“I’m not letting him past me, if he gets close enough to overtake he can overtake,” replied the 2008 champion, who stayed ahead for eight more laps until Rosberg pitted.

Had the Briton made way, Rosberg – who denied making any request to be let through – might have been able to win for Mercedes instead of both being beaten by Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo.

But Hamilton, who had started from the pitlane, would have fallen further behind in the championship instead of cutting the gap to 11 points with eight races remaining.


Hamilton said he was “very, very shocked” by the request.

“I was in the same race as him. Just because he had one more stop than me doesn’t mean I wasn’t in the same race as him,” he explained. “And naturally if I’d have let him past, he would have had the opportunity to pull away and when he does pit, he’s going to come back and overtake me.

“To be honest, he didn’t get close enough to overtake but I was never going to lift off and lose ground to Fernando (Alonso) or Daniel to enable him to have a better race. So that was a bit strange.”

Mercedes, dominant this season, have made a point of not imposing ‘team orders’ in an effort to keep the fans entertained but that has brought friction between their drivers as well as some thrilling wheel-to-wheel battles.

Wolff said in March that the pair were free to race, within defined limits and as long as the team did not lose out.

He said on Sunday that with Mercedes now 174 points clear or Red Bull in the constructors’ championship, and the drivers in a duel of their own for that title, there needed to be a fresh discussion of how to proceed.

“It’s a difficult situation now,” he said. “The longer the season goes, the more intense it gets. At the beginning of the season it was easy to say these are the rules and this is how we are going to do it.

“Now it’s clear these two are fighting for the world championship and it’s more intense. We need to sit down and discuss it.”

Mercedes have won nine of the 11 races to date – five for Hamilton – and Rosberg had been expected to celebrate his fifth on Sunday after starting from pole position with Hamilton last.

Instead, the safety car threw the race on its head with Rosberg on a three stop to Hamilton’s two.

Niki Lauda, the retired three-times world champion who is now non-executive chairman of Mercedes, said Hamilton did what he had to do.

“I do understand that Lewis said ‘Why? Why should I stop now in the middle of the circuit to let my team colleague by.’ He is fighting for the championship,” he told reporters.

“From my point of view, Lewis was right. Why the call came, this happened out of the panic and we had to make up for what we were losing.

“The call was unnecessary, afterwards, but it was made. Lewis ignored it and finished third, so looking backwards nothing wrong from my point of view,” he said.

“It is important Lewis said ‘No, I’m racing my team-mate anyway’. So he did the right thing.”

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Martyn Herman.)

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Alonso keeps Ferrari sweet with second place

The result was the Spaniard’s best result of the year, after a third place in China, and came at the circuit where he took his first win in Formula One with Renault back in 2003.


Last year Alonso earned himself a rebuke from Maranello on his 32nd birthday, the day after he finished fifth at the Hungaroring and told reporters he wanted the car the other drivers had.

Asked at the same time what he planned to do over the August break, the Spaniard had replied: “I will pray”.

Those remarks led to a sharp telephone conversation with Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo, in which the driver’s ear was officially ‘tweaked’, and came after speculation about Alonso’s future with the team.

The double world champion can expect a more effusive conversation with the big boss this time after steering well clear of any such controversy on Sunday.

“I am extremely proud of the team, extremely proud of the job we did today and very, very happy,” declared the Spaniard, whose 33rd birthday is on Tuesday.

“This podium means a lot to me and the whole team, because after so many difficult races, we managed to get the most out of everything, also taking a few risks and second place seems like a win.

“To do 31 laps at the end on used soft tyres was a great challenge. At that point, the strategy suggested that if we had made a third stop, we could have finished fourth, but we decided to run to the flag instead.”

Asked what he might wish for his birthday this year, he recognised that his words had caused a stir in Italy last time round.

“So, this year, I will not wish anything about the car and I will wish a happy day to everyone in Italy,” he said.

Ferrari team principal Marco Mattiacci, who replaced Stefano Domenicali in April, sounded happier already than he has been in a while.

“Fernando’s second place is a confidence booster and a sign that the major effort everyone is making to bring Ferrari back to the top is moving in the right direction,” he declared.

“However we have to be realistic about it. Here, the weather and the track conditions levelled out the performance differences and that’s why we must not delude ourselves. Now we must just go back home, set on always doing better.”  

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Martyn Herman.)

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Battling Cook and Ballance put England in control

Ballance was unbeaten on 104 at the close and beleaguered captain Cook survived a dropped catch to silence his critics with a battling knock after making a brave decision to bat first.


Ian Bell (16 not out) and Ballance safely negotiated the second new ball and the pair will resume on Monday when England will bid to post a large total as they bid to level the five-match series.

Cook, in dreadful recent form which has led to calls from former England captains Michael Vaughan, Geoff Boycott, Mike Atherton and Kevin Pietersen to step down, had a huge slice of luck on 15 when he was dropped by Ravindra Jadeja at slip.

He survived to add 158 with Ballance, who joined an elite group of players by scoring his third century in his first six tests.

Cook batted with few alarms and was looking good for his 26th test century when he feathered a faint edge down the leg side off Jadeja and was caught by wicketkeeper Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

“The reception was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. It was a really nice feeling,” Cook said.

“I was delighted to get 95 but also frustrated that I didn’t get a hundred but if you’d have offered me that score yesterday I’d have snapped your hand off.

“It has given me some confidence that my batting is going in the right direction and hopefully I can carry on scoring runs.”

Cook did, however, reach a significant personal landmark as he overtook David Gower to move into third place in the list of England’s all-time leading test run-scorers, on 8,257. Graham Gooch leads the list with 8,900 from Alec Stewart on 8,463.

“They’re really nice achievements aren’t they but at the beginning of the day I wasn’t thinking about it at all,” Cook said.

Cook made the brave call to bat after winning the toss and despite a hint of movement for the seamers, the hosts lost only Sam Robson for 26 in the morning, caught at third slip off Mohammed Shami.

The afternoon session belonged to England, although India’s Bhuvneshwar Kumar and debutant Pankaj Singh began to find their length with much greater consistency.


Ballance survived a close caught behind call and several deliveries whistled just past the outside edge before he and Cook reached tea with an unbroken partnership of 131.

Cook looked nervous in the nineties and he perished trying to pull a short leg-side delivery from Jadeja which he nicked through to Dhoni.

Ballance had upped the scoring rate and reached his century, which included 15 fours, with a perfectly-timed boundary.

He was well supported by Bell, although the experienced right-hander was fortunate to survive following a close lbw shout off Singh.

“Today the scoreboard says it’s not our day and it wasn’t the best day on tour for our bowling attack but Pankaj bowled pretty well and if things went his way he would have had a couple of wickets,” India bowling coach Joe Dawes said.

“There’s improvement to make tomorrow and hopefully we can get an early breakthrough.

“If we can get two or three poles in the morning we’ll be well back in it. We need to make them play a little bit more.”

(Editing by Ed Osmond)

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