Nibali Is Italy’s First Tour de France Champ This Century

Vincenzo Nibali became the first Italian to win the Tour de France since Marco Pantani in 1998 after leading the three-week race from the early stages.

The Astana rider, who grew up in Sicily watching the late Pantani on television, crossed the finish line yesterday on the Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris 24 seconds after stage winner Marcel Kittel of Germany. His victory makes him just the sixth man to win all three Grand Tours -- the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Spain’s Vuelta. Traditionally, riders don’t try to catch the overall leader during the final stage, a 137.5 kilometer (85 mile) ride from Evry to Paris.

“No feeling of happiness could be compared to what we feel on the podium at the Champs-Elysées, it’s even more beautiful than what I could imagine,” Nibali, 29, told the crowd in Italian at the trophy ceremony at Arc de Triomphe. “I have felt such a strong emotion very few times in my life.”

Jean-Christophe Peraud finished second in the overall classification, at 7 minutes, 37 seconds back, while Thibaut Pinot was third at 8 minutes, 15 seconds behind Nibali. It’s the first time France has had a rider on the podium in 17 years.

Nibali won four of the tour’s 21 rides: stage 2 in Sheffield, stage 10 in the Vosges, stage 13 in the Alps and stage 18 in the Pyrenees. He’s worn the leader’s yellow jersey every day bar two and his lead is the biggest since Germany’s Jan Ullrich won the 1997 Tour by more than nine minutes.

Nibali’s victory ended a two-year run for Team Sky. Last year, Chris Froome gave Britain the title for the second year in a row after Bradley Wiggins became the first British winner in

2012. There have now been seven different Tour winners in seven successive years. That hasn’t happened in the Tour since 1932-1938.

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Wiggins was left out of the team this season, while pre-race favorites Froome and two-time winner Alberto Contador of Spain both exited the Tour early following crashes.

Nibali became one of the best-paid riders in the world after he extended his contract with the Kazakhstan-owned Astana Team last year until 2016 for 4 million euros ($5.4 million) a year, according to Cycling News.

Born near the Strait of Messina, Nibali is nicknamed the “Shark of the Strait” or “the Shark.” He moved to Tuscany at the age of 16 to advance his cycling career. He told reporters during the Tour de France he grew up watching cycling on television and remembers watching Pantani win the Tour. Nibali’s father had been passionate about the sport, and made his son watch documentaries and recorded races.

Pantani died of a cocaine overdose in 2004. His career had gone into decline after he was ejected while leading the 1999 Giro for having too high a red blood cell count, which may indicate use of banned drugs.

As have most riders since American Lance Armstrong admitted cheating from 1999 to 2005, Nibali has been confronted with frequent questions about doping as he extended his lead stage by stage.

“I’ve always been a standard-bearer for anti-doping,” he was quoted as saying by Cycling News on July 21.

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