Ryan Gibbons will ride in the 2020 Tour de France for the NTT Pro Cycling team. File photo: GETTY IMAGES/ROBERTUS PUDYANTO
Ryan Gibbons will ride in the 2020 Tour de France for the NTT Pro Cycling team. File photo: GETTY IMAGES/ROBERTUS PUDYANTO

Ryan Gibbons was the first person through the door of his team hotel at the Tour de France on Wednesday, his eyes big with wonder as he arrived to prepare for the biggest show on earth.

On Saturday, Gibbons, who will wear the SA champions jersey and make his Tour debut, will be one of two South Africans at the 107th edition of La Grand Boucle. Daryl Impey will start his eighth and final Tour for his Australian team, Mitchelton-Scott, as he prepares to leave them at the end of the season.

Gibbons was a bunch of nerves as he checked in with the NTT Pro Cycling back room staff. Riding on the big loop of France has been a dream of his since he began cycling. It was a dream that looked for a while as though it may be deferred after the coronavirus pandemic forced a postponement until the start in Nice this weekend.

“It’s absolutely incredible,” said Gibbons. “It’s been a dream of mine for so long, so for it to come true is surreal. I was here a bit earlier than the others, but when you are at a grand tour, there is a lot of admin, a lot of extra stuff to get sorted before the race. So to get here earlier and to get that done, and to get the nerves settled is a bit easing on me.”

His job at the Tour will be twofold, but mainly as support for Italian Giacomo Nizzolo, who has hit a rich seam of form at just the right time. On Sunday he won the Italian national championship and on Wednesday the European championships in Plouay, France. He also finished fifth at the Milan-San Remo earlier in August.

“It’s a very, very challenging route,” said Gibbons, who has forged a good partnership with Nizzolo. “It seems that it gets harder every year to get a result. Our goal here is to go for stage wins. We have Giacomo Nizzolo, who is riding really well. I’ll be riding in support of him on the sprint stages. I’ll be doing my bit to assist the team wherever necessary. There are going to be a lot of tougher days.”

It will be a little tougher for Gibbons, who crashed on the second stage of the Tour de Wallonie last week, damaging his ribs. He abandoned the race as a precaution and has been pronounced fit to race the Tour.

“I have broken ribs, but it feels all right. It’s the top rib just below the collar bone. Breathing and sleeping has been a bit difficult, but it gets better every day. I am able to ride the bike, let’s just see if I can ride fast on the bike,” said Gibbons.

Impey, who became the second South African after Robbie Hunter to win an individual stage at the Tour when he took the ninth stage in 2019, said he felt calm as he approached his eighth appearance at the race. Like NTT, Mitchelton-Scott will be taking an opportunistic approach to the Tour, looking for stage wins.

“Should be all systems go,” said Impey. “Being a stage winner does bring a certain calmness for me. I was always hunting this and was sometimes overexcited, which ruined my chances. I can certainly think more clearly now without having to think ‘what if this is my only chance’.

“Having won at that level, and from a break of many specialists on that day, gives me confidence in the sense that I know I can do it. A stage win for the team would definitely make it successful and I would love to be the one who does it. That would be great. Last year was hugely successful and will be difficult to repeat, but we will certainly be going all out to achieve that.”

For Doug Ryder, NTT team principal, the Tour is a godsend in a difficult year for cycling and sport overall during the pandemic.

“It’s amazing to be here in the first place,” said Ryder. “Having the Tour on is special. It’s been a long, difficult year. We have an amazing team here off and on the bike. We’re looking forward to the next three weeks.  

“The team is pumped, with the European champion. Having two national jerseys [Italian and South African] in our team this year is incredible. We have two new riders taking part in the Tour for the first time, then two riders in their 10th Tour. I think we are ready.

“We’ve tried over the years to have the South African champions jersey on our team at the Tour. That’s why it is always important for us to be at the SA national champs in February,” said Ryder.

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