Nibali the toast of Paris
Champion targets World title after crushing rivals in three weeks of ruthless domination
Vincenzo Nibali won the Tour de France yesterday, becoming the first Italian in 16 years to triumph in cycling's greatest race by chiselling a lead over his main rivals a few seconds at a time and dominating them in the mountains.
The 29-year-old Sicilian, who called himself "a flag-bearer of anti-doping" during the race, finished in the pack behind Marcel Kittel, who won the 21st stage in a sprint finish.
Nibali's victory comes after the pre-race favourites - 2013 champion Chris Froome and two-time winner Alberto Contador - crashed out with injuries in the first half of the Tour.
Astana team leader Nibali becomes only the sixth rider to win all three Grand Tours - France, Italy and Spain. The last Italian to win the Tour de France was Marco Pantani in 1998.
Nibali will now chase the world champion's rainbow jersey after completing his grand tour hat-trick.
The 29-year-old Italian, winner of the 2010 Vuelta a Espana and 2013 Giro d'Italia, said: "I'll keep focusing on Grand Tours but I'd also like to crown it all with a rainbow jersey one year," said Nibali, who does not believe this September's circuit in Ponferrada, Spain suits him.
"The Vuelta was perhaps the most important competition because it gave me the strength to go into the Giro and the Tour in the following year.
"The Giro was an important competition for the Italian public. Within the context of the Tour de France it's something even greater than the Giro. It's a more emotional, intense moment."
After cruising over the line behind Kittel, a German who got his fourth stage win, Nibali got pats on the back, kissed his wife and infant daughter, and was mobbed by cameras as race organizers hustled him away to prepare for the final awards ceremony.
"Unbelievable," said Kittel, whose victories bookended this Tour. He won Stage 1 when British rival Mark Cavendish crashed out in the final sprint.
Nibali also won four stages, the most by a Tour winner since Lance Armstrong won five a decade ago. He wore the yellow jersey for all but two stages since Stage 1. His 7 minute, 52 second margin over runner-up Jean-Christophe Peraud is the largest since Jan Ullrich of Germany beat second-placed Richard Virenque by just over nine minutes in 1997.
In one of the subplots of this race, Peraud and third-placed Thibaut Pinot became the first Frenchmen to reach the Tour podium since Virenque in that same year.
But such comparisons, many cycling insiders have noted, miss the mark. Armstrong, Ullrich and Virenque were three of the big-name riders caught in nearly a generation of doping scandals in cycling. Armstrong, in the biggest scandal ever in the sport, admitted to doping and was stripped of his record seven Tour titles.
Nibali and many others in the peloton say that era is past. But his own victories in the 2010 Vuelta and the Italian Giro last year were tarnished by high-profile doping cases involving other riders. While cycling's governing body, the UCI, has made great efforts to halt use of drugs and other performance-enhancers, such as through the biological passport program, few people believe the pack is fully clean.
Many naysayers may argue that Nibali was merely the best of the riders still in this Tour. Colombia's Nairo Quintana, who won the Giro d'Italia in May, did not ride. Bradley Wiggins, the 2012 Tour champion, was passed over so his Sky Team could focus on Froome. Then Froome and Contador pulled out due to injuries.
But even before they left, Nibali had gained a two-second advantage on them by winning Stage 2, surprising even himself. Then, in Stage 5 after Froome crashed out, the Italian excelled on cobblestone patches that slowed down Contador, who lost more than two and a half minutes to Nibali. The Spaniard was forced into a need to attack.
On a downhill in Stage 10, Contador crashed and fractured his tibia. But Nibali, who is known as 'The Shark of the Strait' - a nod to the waterway near his hometown of Messina, Sicily - didn't stop there. He went on to win that stage. It was the first of three stages with uphill finishes that he won, adding one in the Alps (Chamrousse) and another in the Pyrenees (Hautacam).
Nibali said this Tour layout, announced last fall, "was almost made to measure for me."
The 101st edition began in Yorkshire and guided riders over 3,664 kilometres (2,277 miles) including cobblestones, wind-swept flats and climbs in the Vosges, Alps and Pyrenees.
With the Arc de Triomphe in Paris as the backdrop, other riders getting TV time on the winner's podium included Peter Sagan of Slovakia, winner of the green jersey given to the race's best sprinter; Rafal Majka of Poland, the best climber; and Pinot, the best young rider born since the start of 1989.
Ireland's Nicolas Roche finished 39th overall, nearly two hours behind Nibali.