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Favorite son: Vincenzo Nibali is Italy’s latest star

  • By Matthew Beaudin
  • Published Jul. 11, 2014
Vincenzo Nibali may be best remembered for his victory in the snow at the 2013 Giro d'Italia. But the Italian may have something even more dramatic in store for the 2014 Tour de France. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

(Editor’s Note: This article previously ran in the May issue of Velo magazine.)

The photo shows him in pink, head down, arm up, the road inky wet. He’s racing into legend among the thick snowflakes, a moment that would radiate from this place in the Dolomites and outward.

Snow falls hard, a white smog of thick confetti. The obscured figure of Vincenzo Nibali has just ridden through the storm, up the famed Tre Cime di Lavaredo, and sealed the Giro d’Italia for his country, for himself — hard-as-nails stuff in the snow, a bike-racer’s race won by a bike-racer’s racer.

If we could pick how we’re remembered, Nibali might pick that moment, where he was perfect in the storm, a graceful and brave articulation of competition.

It isn’t snowing right now. Right now, it’s hot and Nibali is slouched in the back of a rented Astana team car in a village in Oman, near the sea. Goats wander the alleys. Nibali is pinning on his numbers delicately, and talking to an Italian journalist about how he makes his coffee. His frame is still wire thin, easy to see since he’s wearing only a pair of bib shorts and sunglasses — all arms and ribs and not much else. There’s a singular leanness to grand tour riders; they’re skin and bone, even in the earliest of early season races.

Twenty minutes from now, Nibali will wrench himself into the first breakaway attempt of the day. It’s a hilly start, he is impossibly behind Chris Froome on the general classification, and it is clear the Shark of Messina is not here to win, and that he will not win.

But Nibali just can’t help himself from scaring people. A day before Oman’s big mountain stage, he attacked late in the race, trying to win the stage and take a time bonus. No dice, but he used every inch of the road to try and gain a second or two.

A perfect example came at the Giro di Lombardia, in 2011. He attacked alone over the Madonna del Ghisallo with 50 kilometers to the stickers, and lost. He wasn’t even in the running, when push came to shove, coming in seven minutes back, in 40th. Swiss rider Oliver Zaugg (Leopard-Trek) won that day.

But Nibali lost brilliantly, and that was worth more than just a loss, at least to some.

At the time, he explained the move, saying, “I took heart and I threw myself into this adventure. I believed. I gave it everything, heart and soul.”

At the 2012 Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Shark attacked late in the race on the descent of the Côte de la Roche aux Faucons, taking the race by the scruff and forcing a frenzied response in his wake.

“I wanted to make a decent move, and it would have been hard to make a selection on the Saint-Nicolas because everybody was still up there. We would all have been up there waiting. I was just missing a little bit in the end,” he said, after Astana’s Maxim Iglinskiy chased him down just inside the red kite.

Nibali attacked on the Poggio at the 2012 Milano-Sanremo in hopes of rattling the race loose. It turned out to be the decisive move; RadioShack-Nissan’s Fabian Cancellara came across to Nibali, while Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) had already leapt on the Sicilian’s wheel. Gerrans went on to win after a tow to the line by Cancellara, with Nibali third and his Liquigas-Cannondale mate Peter Sagan in fourth.

In 2013, Nibali was the only man to beat Froome in a stage race, and he did it by exploiting a punchy profile on a cold and wet day in Italy.

At last year’s Vuelta a España, Nibali was relentless in trying to rip the red from Chris Horner’s thin shoulders. Nibali launched a flurry of attacks against Horner in the thick fog on the race’s last climb, the impossibly steep Alto de L’Angliru, in absolute desperation to take grand tour win number two on the season. He came up short, but had he not attacked, repeatedly, the end result would have been the same. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

The same rawness that makes Nibali great is the same feeling that makes him vulnerable. He’s a wonderfully poetic rider in that sense.

“This is my kind of racing. I feel like the kind of rider of old,” Nibali said in Oman. In the past, he has suggested ditching power meters in favor of more exciting, unpredictable racing.

The sport of cycling was given Nibali when it needed him most, as a counterpoint to riders like Chris Froome, a scientific, strategic rider who is more likely to stare at power numbers than take big chances — chances he doesn’t need to take while blasting away at such high tempo. Nibali won’t ever be that rider; he runs on adrenaline and sensation. It costs him, but it pays off, too.

“Vincenzo is a really unpredictable rider. A lot of the guys, they kind of have … they’re like a one-trick pony. They’re either a good time trialer or a good climber, so they’re going to wait until the climb or wait until the time trial,” said BMC Racing’s Tejay van Garderen, who finished two spots behind Nibali, fifth, at the 2012 Tour. “Vincenzo, it could be any day. If it’s a tricky day where there’s a chance that something could happen, or if it’s gonna just be aggressive, then that’s the day that Vincenzo’s going to do something.”

The reluctant Shark

Nibali, 29, is from Sicily, but had to make the move to the north of the country to truly succeed in cycling. His parents still run the same video store they did when he was younger. He’s the first racer in his family, though his younger brother, Antonio, 21, races now, too, for the Continental team Marchiol.

“To reach my dream, to try to reach, to be a cyclist, I was obliged at a certain point to leave my house, my hometown, my family, to go to the north,” Nibali said. He left for Tuscany at 16, and now lives further north, in Switzerland.

There are those who know they are famous and contented to be so; they were destined, and it’s less an honor than it seems a right. And there are those who shy away from their greatness once the lights of competition have been shut off.

Nibali is the latter. He’s uncomfortable around journalists he hasn’t spent much time with, and he shies away from cameras. He’s one who approaches his fame and expectation with reticence and hesitation. For holidays, he goes to one beach and sits, unbothered. He loathes big cities, preferring to stay in small towns. He spends serious time telling Astana’s PR man exactly how to make the proper coffee from a Bialetti. He is quiet.

But in a bike race, he is a wildcard in an era of technicians. Some guys are legs and lungs that happened to be attached to bicycles; the Shark is tethered to his machine with his heart. He wins and loses by that thread. Emotional, physical, real.

“I love this way of racing. I love to invent something. In the past, this way of racing [has earned me] also some defeats,” Nibali said. But that’s the gift and the curse of panache, isn’t it?

Cycling is a hard-knock sport that has a way of choosing its stars and fans the same way they chose it. In the apex of a corner in the Alps, all that matters is that bike and man have agreed to be together, and there is no going back now. They’re the same thing, man and bike, and they corner as such, climb as such, descend as such. Nibali is that thing; it’s why he’s a joy to behold, even if in vain.

“From the very first moment, I loved the bike,” he said, smiling. “The first bike I ever got [was] a gift. For me it started, first in the first little race, second in the second little race. I understood immediately cycling was a good sport for me.”

The pressure on Nibali is great. He’s Italy’s favorite son, because when he’s on the bike, he’s everything that his country demands of a racer born and bred on its twisty and dramatic roads and forged in its mountains. He’s a gifted climber and surreal descender. Sometimes, when he corners at speed, he drags his inside hand on the ground, just to prove he can. He rides with an uncommon voltage and is always willing to make the race. He’s what racing used to be and what more and more people find themselves hungry for.

Sky boss Dave Brailsford knows how good the Sicilian is, however much of a departure he represents from the Sky wattage-threshold doctrine and the linear graphs of performance.

“What I like about Vincenzo is that he’s a real cyclist. He’s a fighter, aggressive, and never gives up,” Brailsford told Italian sport newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport. “He can transform a stage, he’s creative and brave. He always gives 100 percent. His talent is obvious.”

Nibali’s pedigree mixes with that of his country, enhancing the burden to perform. Italy has produced 82 grand tour victories in total: 68 in the Giro, nine at the Tour, and five in the Vuelta. France, the runner up, has 51 to its credit.

But that pressure, when it’s there, leaves him as quickly as the flash of an attack. “There is a great difference in my character. I don’t feel the pressure at all to win — only once in my career, only once [was there] a great pressure about me,” Nibali said.

That “only once” came in the 2011 Giro, at a stage that started in his hometown. Nibali didn’t have a great performance, though that didn’t stop fans from asking for everything under the sun. And he’s not insusceptible to expectations; the night before the final time trial at the 2012 Tour de France, he nervously slept for just an hour. But once the race begins, things seem to slow down. Even if he’s not racing to win, he’s racing to entertain.

Nibali didn’t get into that break in Oman, and he lost to Froome, predictably. But it’s in the trying for an electric opportunist like Nibali.

He may not have started the Tour de France as an outright favorite, but his aggressive riding has earned him the yellow jersey after one week of racing.

His rivals are sure to challenge that lead in the mountains, but with Nibali, it ain’t over till it’s over.

FILED UNDER: News / Road / Tour de France TAGS:

Matthew Beaudin

Matthew Beaudin

Matthew Beaudin graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder's journalism school in 2005 and immediately moved to Telluride, Colorado, to write and ski, though the order is fuzzy. Beaudin was the editor of the Telluride Daily Planet for five years. He now lives in Boulder, where he joined VeloNews in the spring of 2012. Music. Coffee. Bikes. That about sums it up.

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