The Long Awaited Moment

Harry Engels

Astana's Vincenzo Nibali -- the saviour of Italian cycling?

In my lifetime you could argue that there has not been a true Italian winner of the Tour de France.

I was born in late 1965, about four months after Felice Gimondi, his own career just coming to life, won the 1965 Tour over Raymond Poulidor. Then... nothing. Well, Merckx, Ocana, Thevenet -- that fine generation took over, salted by occasional Dutch successes. By the end of Hinault's reign, the Tour suddenly became the object of riders from all over, with Americans and Irishmen among the successors. Then a Dane. Even a German. Until finally, in 1998, Marco Pantani caused the Song of the Italians to be heard at the Champs-Elysées once again.

Pantani is a well-chronicled character, and if the Tour wanted to overturn every dirty outcome there's a chance his 1998 victory would not stand. But it does, so I guess technically there has been an Italian Tour winner in my lifetime. A pretty charismatic one too.

Still, for all the Italian greats the sport has seen, of high or low character, it's odd that so few have stood on the top step in Paris. But not inexplicable: Italy is the only nation on Earth where people there think there's a more important race than the Tour. Many an Italian champion has had to prove his greatness at the Giro d'Italia before justifying a campaign to win the Tour. Ivan Basso was only the most recent, the heir apparent to Armstrong who first had to win a Giro, in 2006, before he could expect to ascend to the Maillot Jaune. By then, no Tour contender rode the Giro if they didn't have to. Basso had to.

All of this is to place Vincenzo Nibali into his proper context. Let me be perfectly clear: HE HAS NOT WON THE TOUR YET. But he looks like a very strong favorite, and even luck is on his side, if you can call avoiding crashes due in large part to incredible bike-handling "luck". Hopefully luck won't desert him, but only a fool would blithely assume otherwise. So stay tuned.

Anyway, here are all of the Tours de France won by Italians:

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Ottavio Bottecchia, 1924-25

The first Italian winner arrived as an unknown helper to Henri Pelissier in 1923 and nearly stole the show before inexperience undermined him in the mountains. Pelissier graciously anointed Bottecchia as his successor -- and to underline the point, he quit the 1924 Tour in protest over the increasingly sadistic rules such as no changing your jersey, leaving a more seasoned and very strong Bottecchia to dominate the 5400-km race. Only briefly did the Italian share the maillot jaune, and he won in the end by over 35 minutes.

The following year, with Pelissier again absent (injured this time), Bottecchia was even better, winning by 54 minutes over Lucien Buysse. Again he dominated the mountain stages, having given over yellow to Theophile Beeckman early on only to take it back on the first Pyrenean stage. Bottechia was one of the earliest Tour-only guys, at least for a foreigner.

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Gino Bartali, 1938, 1948

Gino the Pious was the first Italian Tour champion from an era that vaguely resembles today. No disrespect to Bottecchia, but in 1938, when Mussolini ordered the Giro champion Bartali to focus solely on the Tour, the race was 21 stages in a procession not unlike the modern race. Bartali was held in check, somewhat, until the race hit the Alps. There, Bartali was unstoppable and soared away from the competition on the Col d'Izoard to put 17 minutes into his closest rival. He defended the jersey easily into Paris from there.

A remarkable ten years later Bartali was again on top. Obviously world events were to blame, but simply being fit for such a long time, and through years of (thoroughly celebrated) wartime service, was an achievement in and of itself. And the 1948 race was as memorable as they come. As Italians marched in the streets back home in protest of an assassination attempt of a Communist party leader, Bartali was asked by the Prime Minister of Italy to deliver a performance to divert people's attention from the troubles. He responded with three straight Alpine stage wins, beginning on the Col d'Izoard (are you sensing a pattern yet?) and ending in Lausanne, with Bartali in complete control. He won in Paris by 26 minutes over Briek Schotte (!).

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Fausto Coppi, 1949, 1952

In 1949 il Campionissimo was in the midst of putting down one of the greatest and most memorable seasons in the sport's history, at least to date. Bartali was his rival and the defending Tour winner, but the torch had already been passed at the Giro d'Italia, the much-storied '49 race where Coppi thoroughly supplanted Bartali as Italy's greatest cyclist. The two arrived at the Tour as teammates, thanks to the Tour's use of national teams, but manager Alfredo Binda gave them each their share of domestiques and told them to attack each other when they needed to.

Coincidentally, the Col d'Izoard was the race-maker, as the two left the peloton behind for good, just as Coppi had left Bartali and his Giro rivals behind in his attack over the famous Cuneo-Pinerolo stage, highlighted by the Izoard. Back at the Tour, Bartali took the stage and the lead in Briancon, which Coppi moved up to second overall. The next day, Bartali flatted on the road to Aosta, over the Italian border, and Coppi took over the lead. He cemented his advantage in a final 137km time trial.

Three years later, Coppi was back on form and put together a dominant performance in the first Tour to feature mountain-top finishes. He won on Alpe d'Huez, making its first appearance, and he crushed the entire Tour on a massive stage to Sestriere, again rewarding adoring Italian fans with the victory they craved. By the time the race reached Paris, Coppi's nearest challenger was 28 minutes behind.

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Gastone Nencini, 1960

The Lion of Mugello was a former Giro winner and maillot a pois at Le Tour when he arrived at the 1960 race. He had a reputation as an incredible descender, among other things, leading Raphael Geminiani to say of him, "the only reason to follow Nencini downhill would be if you had a death wish." This was a valuable enough skill that another noted descender, Henri Anglade, apparently challenged him to a descend-off in a stage of the Giro d'Italia (the year is apparently lost to history), with an evening aperitif to the winner. Anglade called up the blackboard man to keep track, and eventually put 30" into Nencini over a packed-dirt road. Nencini paid up that night.

In 1960 Nencini's only rival, Roger Riviere, famously crashed out of this Tour, leaving the Italian unchallenged more or less to Paris. Riviere was a track star and a Tour hopeful when he flipped over a curb stone and dropped 20 meters into a ravine breaking a couple vertebrae. Prior to that he'd won three of the first ten stages, but it was Nencini -- who ended up stageless in Paris -- who held yellow throughout. Apparently much of the race was focused on the drugs found in Riviere's pockets. Not good times.

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Felice Gimondi, 1965

Gimondi won his only Tour on his first try, a somewhat dour affair pitting him against an overconfident Raymond Poulidor, who figured the race was his when Jacques Anquetil stayed home and a number of other contenders went home amidst a doping scandal. Eleven riders were implicated, but several more fled before their number came up, as police began raiding hotel rooms.

Gimondi won the race against the watch, and limited losses in the mountains. Poulidor was considered a fine time triallist, but Gimondi ceded only five seconds in the first one and won both of the final week cronos, including a last-day affair from Versailles to Paris. No great foreshadowing of 1989 -- Gimondi was already in yellow. But his slim lead grew to over two minutes by the race's end. A better foreshadowing might be the fact that he put himself in yellow by winning the stage from Roubaix to Rouen.

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Marco Pantani, 1998

Change was in the air in 1997, as the old guard of Riis and more importantly Indurain gave way to a new generation, ushered in by Jan Ullrich's powerful victory. But Ullrich was never the ultra-competitor; just a great athlete who liked his bike enough to win. He showed up to begin the season overweight and unfit, and only by July was he looking like his old self. Pantani, by contrast, was hungry and flying, dominating in both the Pyrenees and the Alps. The Pirate was no match whatsoever for Ullrich in the time trials, but he solved that problem in a famous solo attack to Les Deux Alps, when he put an insurmountable nine minutes into Ullrich.

*****

Pantani is celebrated by many Italian fans like a true Champion of the Tour, but I'm probably not alone in wondering otherwise. He was a swashbuckling climber, and if we could strip away the doping we might still have had the same electrifying presence. But... who knows?

So then Nibali. A rider raised in the shadows of others, Nibali arrives without overwhelming sensations... though Italian fans reserve the right to change that in the coming weeks. Nibali came up through Fassa Bortolo, then to Liquigas where he and Roman Kreuziger were being raised to succeed Ivan Basso, should Basso ever pass over the captain's mantle on Italy's best team. Kreuziger famously said of Nibali that he has a "small motor," not a pure power body like Kreuziger's, but the Czech has never established his own credentials the way Nibali has. Beginning in 2010, Nibali demonstrated to all that he possessed a wide variety of skills which rivals underestimate at their peril. First at the Giro, where he was a late substitution to the Liquigas team, Nibali took over the race lead early on, then paced captain Ivan Basso (a crappy descender) away from David Arroyo (a fine descender) coming off the Mortirolo, and up into Aprica to win the race.

Nibali's descending skills became legend by then, but he showed a mental toughness of the highest order in the 2010 Vuelta, when Ezequiel Mosquera threatened to steal victory on the penultimate stage to the Bola del Mundo. Mosquera had climbed into the virtual lead but by the summit Nibali, who stayed cool and slowly emptied his tank in a lonely pursuit, had Mosquera's wheel, and only lost the stage by a whisker, sealing a 41" overall win.

Aggressiveness is another hallmark, and while it hasn't always served him (Nibali has his share of forgettable grand tour stages), he nearly won Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 2012 on that basis, attacking on the Cote de la Roche aux Faucons to stay away until Max Iglinsky caught him in the final kilometer. Panache is definitely another tool in his toolbox.

Finally, Nibali became the first Sicilian to win the Giro d'Italia in 2013, a steady and certain performance where he took over the lead on stage 8 and won by nearly five minutes, taking the race's biggest Dolomite stages along the way. By then he had migrated over to Astana, where Kreuziger had tried and failed to consolidate his leadership (though Kreuziger did finally show his potential once he moved to Saxo-Tinkoff, taking fifth in the Tour last year). Installed as the team's Tour captain, Nibali delivered one of the most memorable performances in a non-mountain stage by a climber in Tour history, taking second on the Pave of Paris-Roubaix fame and crushing many rivals while showing yet another tool in his toolbox: cobbles riding. Yesterday's win underlined his abilities once more, as he patiently and calmly rode away when the race hit the final stretch.

So who is this guy? Debate the size of his motor if you must, but Nibali descends like a madman, handles his bike brilliantly across the worst roads in the world, and shows the calmness, patience, and intelligence of the greatest Tour champions. He's exciting, except when he's dominating his rivals to sleep. He comes with no known skeletons in his closet -- you never know in cycling, and he did ride for Fassa Bortolo in 2005, but unlike virtually every other top Italian rider there is otherwise zero reason to look askance at what Nibali has accomplished. That he's doing it as a Southern Italian (sorta -- he moved up north later in his youth) adds even more to his resume.

I'm not sure he's seized the attention of all of Italy yet, or if he has it's been building slowly. And the forced withdrawals of his rivals -- not to mention the fact that there are another eleven stages remaining -- might stem that tide in the end. But it's possible that we are seeing the unexpected emergence of a great champion from one of Cycling's great nations in a way that hasn't occurred in a long, long time. Stay tuned.

All old photos from AFP/Getty Images

Special thanks to our own Feargal McKay and his Complete Book of the Tour de France, which I consulted for the Tour histories and about which I will be saying more shortly.

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