BRESCIA, Italy (AFP) — Vincenzo Nibali’s maiden Giro d’Italia triumph was feted in lavish fashion in pink-clad Brescia on Sunday, but there was more than one reason behind the fervor surrounding the Italian’s success.
In a doping-tainted era marked by the disgrace of several compatriots and, last year, the downfall of American Lance Armstrong, Nibali (Astana) has been held up as a symbol of hope for the renaissance of Italian, and international, cycling.
So far, the 28-year-old Sicilian has avoided the kind of scandal to befall compatriots like Danilo Di Luca (Vini Fantini-Selle Italia) and Ivan Basso (Cannondale), both former Giro winners who went on to serve doping bans.
Nibali’s calm demeanor belies the “Shark” nickname given to him in the peloton, because of his aggressive riding — downhill as well as up — but sits comfortably with the general perception that he is a clean cycling champion.
Nibali says he has nothing to hide, but insists he’s not alone in the modern peloton.
“Since I left Sicily for Tuscany as a 16-year-old to follow my dream, I’ve had very strong ethical values instilled in me,” Nibali said after sealing victory Sunday with a lead of nearly five minutes on Colombian Rigoberto Urán (Sky). “I’m happy to be seen as one of the leaders of this new generation, but I don’t think I’m the only one in the peloton who holds these values.”
Coming only days after the race’s second doping positive was revealed — the first being Frenchman Sylvain George’s (Ag2r La Mondiale) positive for an over-the-counter remedy — Nibali’s comments lent weight to the perception that Italian cycling, which has seen several big names implicated or snared in controversy in recent years, is getting its act together.
Nibali notably spoke out on Friday after former teammate Di Luca, the 2007 race champion, quit the Giro in disgrace following confirmation of a positive test for the banned blood booster EPO (erythropoietin) during a random control in April.
Di Luca, 37, has been sanctioned twice in the past for his implication in doping affairs.
“The news about Danilo Di Luca is very bad. It leaves us, the riders, to pay the price,” said Nibali. “It’s not good for the sport and is not something we like to hear.”
Encouragingly for the sport, Nibali rose steadily through the ranks having signaled his talent with third-place finishes at the junior and under-23 world time trial championships.
His first pro win was the GP Ouest France as a 21-year-old and he finished 19th in his 2007 Giro debut.
He improved to 11th in 2008 and, in his Tour de France debut, finished 20th.
It was in 2009, however, that Nibali took his grand tour potential up a notch. Supporting team leader Ivan Basso in a thriller, which featured Alberto Contador, Lance Armstrong and Bradley Wiggins, Nibali upstaged Basso to finish seventh overall, 7:35 behind Contador.
A third-place finish at the 2010 Giro behind champion Basso was followed by his first grand tour win at the Vuelta a España.
Nibali could only finish third, behind winner Alberto Contador, at the 2011 Giro but was moved up to second after the Spaniard was stripped of the title for doping offenses dating to the previous year’s Tour.
A three-way battle with Britain’s Bradley Wiggins and his Sky teammate Chris Froome during the defense of his Vuelta title in 2011 was thrilling, but ultimately left Nibali in seventh.
Another thrilling battle with Wiggins and Froome at last year’s Tour de France left the Italian in third, but this year there will be no repeat.
“The Tour isn’t in my plans or even in my thoughts,” said Nibali, who may take a while to soak up his maiden triumph on home soil. “I will need a little bit of time for all of this to soak in. … My good overall results in the Giro and the Vuelta confirm that I’m a good grand tour rider. But winning the Giro, of course, is special.”