SAINT-ETIENNE, France — Because of doping’s ravages on cycling, it’s natural for suspicion to fall on Vincenzo Nibali, who led the Tour de France on Thursday for a 10th time in 12 stages.
But Nibali says the sport has changed, doping cases have become rare, and “this theme belongs to the past.”
The Italian has had a praiseworthy, almost unbreakable lock on the yellow jersey, yet he will be looking over his shoulder more on Friday. The great race enters two days in the Alps that feature uphill finishes, starting with the hardest climb that the peloton has faced so far.
Off the roads, Nibali said he expected questions about doping, a scourge of much of the last generation, for whom performance-enhancers such as blood-booster EPO or human growth hormone, and methods like blood-doping were common.
Many cycling experts say the sport has greatly cleaned up its act. On Thursday, the Sky team, which has won the last two Tours, sacked British cyclist Jonathan Tiernan-Locke after he was banned for an irregular biological passport. He was not a Tour rider, but few would say the Tour peloton was totally clean.
Doping’s shadow remains at the Tour, among team staffers, and even a rider or two.
Nibali’s team, Astana, was kicked out of the 2007 Tour after its star rider Alexandre Vinokourov tested positive for banned blood transfusions. He served his ban, returned to racing, and won gold at the London Olympics. Vinokourov is now Astana’s general manager.
Rider Michele Scarponi who, like Nibali, won the Giro d’Italia and was racing in this Tour, was given a three-month ban in 2012 for seeing banned physician Michele Ferrari, a longtime adviser of Lance Armstrong.
Nibali says Astana has changed.
“I’ve chosen Astana for the possibility to build a group that I can trust to bring me at a competitive level for important races like the Giro, the Tour and the (Spanish) Vuelta,” he said.
“There have been many mistakes in cycling in the past, by many riders, but they belong to the past,” Nibali said. “We now have a biological passport, out-of-competition controls, controls at home ...
“Nobody can say that cycling hasn’t changed. Nowadays, there is an isolated case. There’s always the possibility that an idiot does something stupid ...”
Nibali, a native of Messina, Sicily, nicknamed the “Shark of the Strait” after the Strait of Messina, is trying to become only the sixth rider in history to win all three Grand Tours of France, Italy and Spain. He would also be the first Italian to win the Tour since Marco Pantani in 1998. The late Pantani was convicted in Italy of doping offenses during his career.
Giuseppe Martinelli, a cycling guru who worked with Pantani for years before they fell out, is an Astana manager.
“Thanks to him,” Nibali said of Martinelli through a translator, “I became closer to the Astana team that has invested a lot in an Italian group in order to regain credibility.”
To succeed Pantani, Nibali is keeping an eye out on other race contenders: Richie Porte of Australia trails by 2 minutes, 23 seconds, and Alejandro Valverde of Spain was third, 2:47 back.
The mostly flat 185.5-kilometer (115.5-mile) course from Bourg-en-Bresse to Saint-Etienne in southeastern France was well suited for a possible sprint finish and that’s how it was won by Alexander Kristoff, a Norwegian specialist with Katusha.
American rider Andrew Talansky pulled out before the stage due to back pain from two previous crashes. A day earlier, the Garmin-Sharp leader rode for hours and finished last.
Stage 13 will put riders’ legs under the most strain yet. The 197.5-kilometer (123-mile) trek begins in Saint-Etienne and will crescendo: It first covers a mid-sized climb and the Category 1 Palaquit pass, and finally an 18-kilometer (12-mile) ascent to Chamrousse — one of cycling’s hardest climbs.
“I’m sure our rivals will try to attack but on the other hand, if I can gain some seconds, I’ll go for it,” the race leader said. “I’ll have to evaluate the strength of my adversaries and consider every race situation.”
The race has 10 more days.
After a chilly start to the race, temperatures are starting to soar on the Tour de France, with another sweltering day in the saddle for race leader Vincenzo Nibali as he safely protected his overall lead during Stage 12. Others were not quite so fortunate and there were several spills as riders hit the burning tarmac at high speeds.
Five things to remember on the tour:
Stage 12 was the hottest so far on the race. Air temperatures crept up to 29 degrees (84 F) and the road temperature rose to 57 C (135 F) by mid-afternoon because of the heat off the tarmac, according to daily statistics provided by Tour organizers. Australian Richie Porte is used to riding in the heat when he competes in the Tour down Under in January during the Australian summer. Still, his Sky team manager Dave Brailsford is taking no risks with his team leader. “The hydration, keeping the body in its optimal condition, is a bigger challenge the hotter it gets,” Brailsford said. “You have to be a little bit more vigilant with your drinking and make sure you don’t get caught out.” With the heat set to continue in the mountains on Friday and Saturday, hydrating properly is paramount. “It gets to a certain point from a temperature perspective that, if you do get caught out, you can’t get away with it — and we’re starting to get into those temperatures now,” Brailsford said.
Shortly before the end of Thursday’s stage to Saint-Etienne, riders were given a painful reminder of how dangerous their sport is. About 2.5 kilometers (1.4 miles) from the end, they rode on the Andrei-Kivilev Roundabout — which is named in honor of the Kazakh rider who died in Saint-Etienne 11 years ago. In March 2003, Kivilev died at the age of 29, falling from his bike following a collision and cracking his skull on the second stage of the Paris-Nice stage race. He was not wearing a helmet. The International Cycling Union subsequently made the wearing of hard helmets compulsory. Kivilev is fondly remembered in Saint-Etienne, where he rode for the EC Saint-Etienne team early in his career.
The stage proved to be busy for Tour medical staff — with doctors treating a range of problems including sunburn, stings and nausea. A total of 10 riders sought medical assistance on a blistering hot day, during which Dutch rider Bram Tankink got badly sunburnt. The sun attracted the wasps, and Swiss rider Michael Schar was stung by one, while Spaniard Benat Intxausti had to stem a nosebleed, and Italian Alessandro Vanotti struggled with what organizers described as digestion trouble. Others had much worse to deal with after heavy crashes. Spanish rider David De La Cruz Melgarejo broke his right collarbone and was taken to hospital he misjudged a turn. Meanwhile, German sprinter Andre Greipel injured his right shoulder. and Belgian Sep Vanmarcke had cuts to his right leg and shoulder.
American rider Tejay van Garderen feels he is peaking at the right time — which is just as well with such tough climbs ahead. The American is ambitious he can earn a podium place. “That’s the goal,” he said. He sits in sixth place, about 4 minutes adrift of Nibali and a little over one minute behind third-place Alejandro Valverde of Spain. “I feel really good right now,” he said. “We’re going to see a few people start to crack and hopefully I’m not one of them.” Van Garderen hoped to continue his tussle with fellow American Andrew Talansky, who was also tipped as a podium candidate pre-race. But Talansky pulled out on Thursday after a grueling 11th stage where he rode alone for hours with excruciating back pains. Van Garderen said: “I feel really bad for him, he obviously had some really good form. It’s sad to see a compatriot go out like that.”
Friday’s 13th stage from Saint-Etienne to Chamrousse is the first of two grueling mountain treks as the race heads into the Alps. The day’s first climb is a Category 1 of about 14 kilometers (9 miles) up Col de Palaquit and has a gradient of 6.1 percent. Cat. 1s are the second toughest category in terms of classifying the difficulty of mountain passes. The second climb is longer and steeper — a daunting ascent of 18 kilometers (11 miles) with a gradient of 7.3 percent — and is known as an “Hors Categorie,” meaning that it is beyond classification. That should get Nibali warmed up for Saturday, when the stage has two Cat. 1s and a huge HC of 19 kilometers (12 miles) up Col d’Izoard, one of the Tour’s more well-known mountain passes. “I’m more afraid of the second Alpine climb than the first one,” Nibali said. “In the first one, everyone’s got energy. But the second one requires more effort.” The three mountain stages in the Pyrenees that follow next week are even tougher.