Italy's Vincenzo Nibali

Crowning of an ‘emperor’ at Tour de France

Vincenzo Nibali put his lungs and legs to work one last time, marching up to the winner’s podium of the Tour de France and sighing deeply before the Italian anthem echoed over the Champs-Elysees. Chants of “Vin-cen-zo!” rang across the famed avenue for the Sicilian, who dominated the race nearly from the start three weeks ago and on Sunday became the first Italian to win cycling’s greatest race since Marco Pantani in 1998.

PARIS — Vincenzo Nibali put his lungs and legs to work one last time, marching up to the winner’s podium of the Tour de France and sighing deeply before the Italian anthem echoed over the Champs-Elysees.

Chants of “Vin-cen-zo!” rang across the famed avenue for the Sicilian, who dominated the race nearly from the start three weeks ago and on Sunday became the first Italian to win cycling’s greatest race since Marco Pantani in 1998.

Marcel Kittel of Germany won Stage 21 in a sprint, his fourth victory this year. Nibali cruised in 24 seconds later, easily retaining a lead of more than seven minutes on his closest rival.

He received pats on the back, kissed his wife and infant daughter and was mobbed by cameras.

“Now that I find myself on the highest step on the Champs-Elysees podium, it’s more beautiful than I ever imagined,” Nibali, the Arc de Triomphe behind him, told the crowd. “I’ve never been this moved in all my life.”

Nibali, likened by some as the emperor of the pack, conquered where others did not: notably Chris Froome of Britain, the 2013 Tour winner, and two-time champion Alberto Contador of Spain. Both crashed out with injuries before the halfway mark.

As if mountain climbs, bone-jarring cobblestones, crashes and rain-splattered rides weren’t enough, Nibali faced the scrutiny that comes with the yellow jersey in a sport long damaged by drugs.

Nibali, who calls himself “a flag-bearer of anti-doping,” noted that his success came through pinpoint focus on this race as the season began and opportunistic attacks in which he was able to nibble seconds on his rivals. There were no eye-popping performances, as was the case when doping was so prevalent.

The Astana team leader is only the sixth rider to win all three Grand Tours — France, Italy and Spain. His win comes 16 years after Pantani, a flamboyant rider, died from a drug overdose.

Nibali won four stages — a feat not equalled by a Tour winner since Lance Armstrong won five a decade ago. The Italian wore the yellow jersey for all but two stages since Stage 1. His seven-minute, 37-second margin over runner-up Jean-Christophe Peraud equals that of Armstrong over Swiss rider Alex Zulle in 1999 — a result nullified because of doping. Before that, the biggest margin was that of Germany’s Jan Ullrich: He beat Richard Virenque by just more than nine minutes in 1997.

Christian Meier of Sussex, N.B., finished 121st, 4:05.13 off Nibali, while Svein Tuft of Langley, B.C., was 131st, 4:22.52 behind.

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 year — a fact not lost on many homegrown fans. Pinot was 8:15 behind.

Armstrong, Ullrich and Virenque were caught in nearly a generation of doping scandals. Armstrong, in cycling’s biggest scandal, 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 doping involving other riders.

Cycling’s governing body has made great efforts to halt drug use, but few cycling experts believe the pack is fully clean.

Authorities in Italy and France have been among the most aggressive in cracking down on doping, and the victory of an Italian, followed by two Frenchmen, could be a sign the peloton is getting cleaner.

Some suggested that Nibali was just the best among the riders still in this Tour. Colombia’s Nairo Quintana, who won the Giro d’Italia in May, didn’t ride. Bradley Wiggins, the 2012 Tour winner, was passed over so his Sky Team could focus on Froome. Then Froome and Contador pulled out.

But even before they left, Nibali had a two-second lead on them by winning Stage 2. Then, in Stage 5 after Froome crashed out, the Italian excelled on cobblestone patches that slowed Contador, who lost more than 2 1/2 minutes to Nibali. The Spaniard felt compelled to attack.

On a downhill in Stage 10, Contador fractured his shin. But Nibali — known as “The Shark of the Strait” in a nod to the waterway near his hometown of Messina, Sicily, and his attacking style — didn’t stop there.

He went on to win that stage, up to the super steep La Planche des Belles Filles. It was the first of three stages with uphill finishes that he won, adding one in the Alps and another in the Pyrenees — each time dealing small but cumulatively significant blows to contenders.

This 101st Tour began in Yorkshire, England, and guided riders over 3,664 kilometres (2,277 miles), with high-mountain rides in the Vosges, Alps and Pyrenees.

Tejay van Garderen, the top U.S. rider, said on Twitter this was the hardest of his four Tours. He finished fifth overall, 11:24 behind Nibali, after climbing a spot in Saturday’s time trial.

Nibali said the Tour layout was “almost made to measure for me.” He also noted that crashes are part of the race, and he’s been such a victim in the past.

As he stepped down from the podium, Nibali hurled the winner’s bouquet into the crowd, and a fan handed him an inflatable shark. Many waved French and Italian flags.

“I think it’s very important for cycling in Italy because at the moment there isn’t a lot of trust,” said spectator Massimo Solaroli, a 47-year-old physical education teacher from the Italian town of Imola. “We don’t believe an Italian champion can win an important race without doping.”

But Nibali, he added, gives reason for hope.

“I think he can be a good champion for all the people, not only for Italian people, because he’s very humble,” he said.

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