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by Neal Rogers
July 2, 2019
Photography by Cor Vos
Two of the most successful riders in professional cycling are headed to the Tour de France flying under the radar. My advice: Don’t sleep on Vincenzo Nibali or Alejandro Valverde as GC threats.
While most lists of pre-race favorites look to Egan Bernal, Geraint Thomas, Jakob Fuglsang, Adam Yates, and Richie Porte, there’s exactly one Grand Tour victory among that group of five riders. In fact, there’s only one Grand Tour podium finish among that group of five riders — Thomas’ Tour win last year. Between Nibali and Valverde, there are 19 Grand Tour podium finishes.
Vincenzo Nibali, 34, has won four Grand Tours; the last was the 2016 Giro d’Italia. Alejandro Valverde, 39, won the 2009 Vuelta España and has finished on the podium of all three Grand Tours, including third at the 2015 Tour.
In weighing a rider’s GC prospects, there’s always a push and pull between past performances and current form. And while there’s no denying recent success — Fuglsang won the Critérium du Dauphiné and Bernal won the Tour de Suisse — Grand Tours are a special kind of animal. Bernal may just be the best climber in the sport, but he’s starting only his second Grand Tour, and there’s no substitute for a proven track record across three weeks of racing.
In total, Nibali has 11 Grand Tour podium finishes and 14 top-10 finishes in Grand Tours, while Valverde has eight podium finishes and 17 top-10 finishes in Grand Tours. Additionally, both men have taken multiple Monument victories and national championship titles. Simply put, they are cagey veterans who know how to win major races, and they have less to prove than Bernal, Thomas, Fuglsang, Yates, or Porte.
Both Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) finished in the top 10 at Milano-Sanremo in March.
However neither rider has had ideal preparation for the Tour. Nibali rode to second overall at the Giro d’Italia, initially stating he would head to the Tour to target stage wins and perhaps the KOM jersey. That plan evolved, however, when both Tom Dumoulin and Chris Froome were ruled out with injury.
Nibali ran away with the 2014 Tour victory when Froome and Alberto Contador both crashed out early; five years later, he has another opportunity to seize the opportunity on the roads of France. Stage 6, which finishes atop La Panche des Belles Filles, marks the spot where Nibali won in yellow in 2014 and will be the first true GC test of this year’s race. He has raced the Tour three times since his 2014 victory, finishing fourth in 2015 and 30th in 2016. He was forced to pull out last year after he was brought down in a collision with a spectator on Stage 12 while sitting fourth overall.
“I will listen to my feelings,” Nibali said in a team statement. “In the first week of the race, and after the first uphill finish at La Panche des Belles Filles, I will see where I am. After the Giro d’Italia I recovered from the fatigue, and in the last two weeks I did a training camp in the Alps with Damiano Caruso. It’s difficult to say who is the favorite, certainly the riders who can win are different.”
Nibali finished fifth at the the June 9 Gran Premio Città di Lugano, his race back after the Giro d’Italia. He didn’t finish the Italian national road championship Sunday in Compiano, pulling out after working to help teammate Sonny Colbrelli, who won the sprint for second place behind winner Davide Formolo (Bora-Hansgrohe).
Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) won the 2014 Tour de France ahead of Jean-Christophe Peraud (AG2R La Mondiale) and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ).
Valverde was forced to miss the Giro in May due to injuries suffered in a crash before Liège-Bastogne-Liège. He’s won the first two races he’s started since returning, the four-stage Route d’Occitanie last week, and the Spanish national road championship on Sunday. He won’t be wearing the Spanish national colors, of course, because he’s also the current world champion.
“It’s sad for me I won’t be able to wear the jersey, yet we couldn’t miss a chance like this to take a prestigious win,” Valverde said after taking the Spanish road title in front of his friends and family in Murcia. “I’m happy to win in front of my home crowd. The legs felt really good leading up to the Tour de France. I feel very good.”
And while Movistar is understandably looking to Nairo Quintana and Mikel Landa as its GC leaders, you’re kidding yourself if you think Valverde wouldn’t cherish the opportunity to contend for the maillot jaune while wearing rainbow stripes.
Since 2013, Quintana has been on the Tour podium three times, and has won both the Vuelta and the Giro. In his last three Grand Tour starts, however, he has finished no better than eighth, and he recently finished ninth overall at the Critérium du Dauphiné. Landa finished fourth at the Giro in May, seventh at last year’s Tour, and fourth at the 2017 Tour while riding in support of Froome at Team Sky. However both riders are rumored to be leaving the team in 2020, Quintana to Arkéa-Samsic and Landa to Bahrain-Merida.
Alejandro Valverde took his third Spanish road title ahead of Luis León Sánchez (Astana) and Jesús Herrada (Cofidis) at Murcia’s La Fuensanta circuit. Photo: Gomez Sport.
Meanwhile Valverde has renewed with the Spanish squad through 2021 before transitioning into a new role through 2024. He’s not going anywhere, and his loyalty to team manager Eusebio Unzué is unquestioned. Unzué would dearly love to win the Tour — his team hasn’t won a Tour since Miguel Indurain in 1995 — but he’d also love to keep the title in the family, particularly as Giro winner Richard Carapaz is rumored to be signing with Team Ineos. The Movistar triumvirate in France will be supported by Marc Soler, Andrey Amador, Carlos Verona, Imanol Erviti, and Nelson Oliveira.
Likewise, Nibali is rumored to leave Bahrain-Merida for Trek-Segafredo in 2020. The difference, of course, is that there are no other GC options within the Bahrain-Merida roster, which includes Caruso, Colbrelli, Matej Mohoric, Ivan Garcia Cortina, Dylan Teuns, Rohan Dennis, and Jan Tratnik.
Can Nibali or Valverde win the Tour? Maybe. Should both riders be considered a legitimate GC threat? Absolutely. It’s a wide-open race, and in Nibali or Valverde are two proven winners with nothing to lose.
“When you go to any race with a rider as talented as Vincenzo Nibali, you know its going to be an exciting one,” said Bahrain-Merida general manager Brent Copeland. “And this is what we’re looking forward to.”
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