PARIS — Tour de France yellow jerseys are usually won high in the mountains or on the time trials, even a mixture of both, but Vincenzo Nibali’s triumphant ride to Paris began on unfamiliar terrain — the cobblestones.
In driving rain on the feared cobbles of northern France, cyclists crashed off in stage five in all directions, some, like 2013 champion Chris Froome, terminally.
However, with two-time former champion Alberto Contador losing two minutes as he tip-toed around the greasy curves, Nibali calmly rode through the mayhem to seize control of the race and never looked in danger of relinquishing his hold.
When Contador crashed out on a descent during the 10th stage, Nibali’s path to glory was clear.
“The cobblestones stage was the most important for the overall victory,” Nibali said on the Champs Elysees on Sunday after an emotional rendition of the Italian national anthem.
“I was nervous about that day although I knew I could do something great. My sports director said go out and enjoy it and I said what is there to enjoy, it’s pouring with rain?!
“But I rode calmly. I think my mountain bike experience helped on that day as I felt in control of my bike.”
With Froome and Contador out, Nibali was a cut above the rest of the field in the mountains and he extended his lead, leaving France’s Jean-Christophe Peraud and Thibaut Pinot to jostle for the second and third steps of the podium with Spain’s Alejandro Valverde. Peraud finished in second, Pino was third, Valverde was fourth and American Tejay van Garderen was fifth.
Some suggested Nibali would not have won with Froome and Contador still there fighting in the mountains, but Nibali said: “I think I would still have done a great race but for sure it would have been harder because they are both great climbers and great leaders.
“But I prepared well for this race and it showed it on the mountain stages. At every mountain finish I was there. I was feeling great.
“Froome and Contador are great champions and I hope I will be able to race against them next year.”
Fellow Italian Mario Cipollini, a sprinter who won 13 Tour stages in eight participations but never reached Paris, said Nibali was a worthy champion.
“I think he would have won anyway this year even if they hadn’t crashed,” he said. “He has proved he can manage a race well.”
Nibali is now the sixth man to win all three grand tours after Belgian Eddy Merckx, Frenchmen Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault, Italian Felice Gimondi and Contador.
“I’ve never really thought about records or history I just take each stage of my career, step by step,” said Nibali, who kissed his parents, his wife and five-month old daughter Emma Vittoria shortly after crossing the line.
“I won the Vuelta in 2010 and the Giro last year. Winning the Giro was a massive emotion because when I was young I watched it every day. I grew up watching Pantani.”
Nibali is the first Italian to win the Tour since the late Pantani in 1998.
“It was a tough race. It’s tough to be there on the podium actually. I was very emotional,” he said.
“My memory was two years ago standing on the podium in Paris and looking across to (Bradley) Wiggins and hoping that I could be there one day. It’s a huge honour and this has been a fantastic day.
“I anticipated that no feeling of happiness could be compared to what we feel on the podium at the Champs-Elysees. It’s even more beautiful than what I could imagine.”