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.
The Astana team leader is only the sixth rider to win all three Grand Tours — France, Italy and Spain. His win comes 10 years after Pantani, a flamboyant rider, died from a drug overdose.
Nibali won four stages — a feat not equaled 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 7-minute, 37-second margin over runnerup 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.
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 2½ 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.