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It's Time to Put Vincenzo Nibali In Context

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Vincenzo Nibali, the most interesting man in the cycling world.

Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

I was blown away by a mention in the comments on yesterday's post-stage wrap that by winning Il (Giro di) Lombardia Astana's Vincenzo Nibali became the first multiple grand tour winner to win one of the five Monuments of Cycling since the great Laurent Fignon added to his legacy at the 1989 edition of Milano-Sanremo. There are a lot of things you can take from that statement.

  • Nibali is an historic figure, or at least a figure drawn more from cycling history than its current iteration
  • Monuments are very different than grand tours
  • Laurent Fignon was awesome, as were Coppi, Bartali, Hinault, Anquetil, Merckx, Janssen, and Gimondi, plus a secondary hat tip to the monument winners who nabbed a grand tour, like Kelly, Moser, Cunego, Valverde, Bobet, Magni and a host of others who've at least crossed over that line once.

Monuments are Different from Grand Tours

On one level this is as obvious and uninteresting a statement as you'll find here at the Cafe, at least containing the word "monument." But when we examine what it takes to be capable of winning both, it's a tad more interesting. Obviously the key to grand tour success is first to be an outstanding climber and second to be at least competent in the time trials, as opposed to vulnerable (coughJRodcough). Next come elements like recovery/consistency, tactical smarts, ability to stay upright, desire, and a good team. By contrast, to win a monument you need to have the abilities required of that particular race -- pure power for Flanders and Roubaix, climbing prowess for LBL and Lombardia, all of the above plus a sprint for MSR -- along with generally being strong, smart, a good bike handler, and have a strong team.

It's probably less bizarre that Fignon won MSR than it is that Hinault won Paris-Roubaix. Paris-Roubaix is the one race that fails to reward any of the grand tour characteristics besides bike handling and pure power (somewhat related to ITT prowess). It selects out smaller riders, who typically make up the best-climber ranks, and doesn't reward teamwork as much as a typical race does (teammates still help, of course, but Cancellara is exhibit A as to why they aren't vital). MSR, by contrast, has the long, long day in the saddle, where a grand tour type can hide for seven hours before using his climbing skills on the Poggio and time trial to the line, as Fignon did to win in 1989. If it comes to a sprint, the grand tour guys have no chance, but until then it's in play. LBL and Lombardia are both very tricky races, often relying on either aggressiveness or sprinting ability to seal the deal, so it is no shock to see grand tour guys there -- they all tend to take the line -- but they are up against lots of guys who can do all the right things on that day, and without a Tour win to focus on they can probably make life miserable in the Ardennes for the fancy-pants stage racers.

Oh, and timing. Four of the monuments are over before the Giro. Back in the day, those races were acceptable warmups for the Vuelta-Giro-Tour gauntlet they were stuck with. Now with the grand tours separated by 6-8 weeks (using the start dates), the season is a bit more spread out, and conducive to the kinds of peak-timing plans common among grand tour contenders. Those come in two flavors: Giro (and maybe Vuelta) attempts, and Tour attempts, with an afterthought to the Vuelta.

For the Giro guys, the first four monuments would require them to get pretty heated up a month before their main goals in the latter stages of the Giro. It's not out of the question, but it's pretty contradictory to the plan. For the Tour guys, it's probably easier to build a mini-peak in April, then calm down in May before ramping up in June and July. But can you win any of these races on your mini-peak? With a ton of luck. But the cycling gods are fickle enough, and there are simply too many riders on a full peak to contend with in the spring Monuments. It can be done but it's not easy.

Lombardia is the outlier, timing-wise, and it's usually a contest of whoever has anything left. The Giro-Vuelta guys are toast. The Giro-Tour guys are definitely on vacation. The Tour-Vuelta guys might be able to squeeze out a bit more racing. But the best conditions would be Tour only, with some other racing leading up to Lombardia. You're not too far gone from your July peak, and not too in the tank. These guys are few in numbers, but thanks to the Vuelta race jury we had one this year.

Remember When You Won Everything? That Was Awesome!

I don't want to do a long retrospective on the great champions of both grand tour and monument; listing them above was probably enough. Still, as regards a few old friends, here are some thoughts.

How did Greg LeMond never win a Monument? He was considered a generational talent, and this is evident in a few results: second in MSR (1986), second in Lombardia (1983), fourth in Roubaix (1985). But he took a pass on a lot of the classics, and his career spanned the years when grand tour winners went from racing everything to taking a more cautious approach, or at least a training-heavy approach, or a change in peak timing. LeMond only once took the start at MSR after 1986, and never went back to Lombardia 1983. He did return to Paris-Roubaix as a defending Tour winner in 1991, finishing 55th, and scored a very respectable ninth the next year, even as EPO took hold of the sport. And as a resident of Kortrijk, he tended to race de Ronde more often than not. But he did so up against guys like Kelly, Argentin, Vanderaerden, Madiot and other classics killers of his time. And he did so with less to gain than those guys, knowing his supporters back in the US had barely even heard of these events.

Oh, and he did win two world championships, so if you want to talk about his classics career, there's that.

Finally, is there any classics win more inexplicable than Hinault's Paris-Roubaix victory? He only did the race once, as we know He famously sought to avoid the race (five appearances) though a Breton star was bound to have a good understanding of the roads up there regardless. And I saw him descend enough to know he could handle his bike. And he wasn't the smallest grand tour winner ever, though his race weight of 60kg or so is way below the optimum for that event. Still.. .he fell seven times. Presumably there was not only the impact of falling taking a toll but the need to subsequently chase back on working against him. It's bizarre that he could win the race he hated, bizarre that he could succeed at all as a smaller guy, beyond belief that he could overcome this adversity, and utterly mind-halting that his victims on the day were four-time winner Roger De Vlaeminck (Mr. Paris-Roubaix), Francesco Moser (who would win the next three editions), and just off the podium at the back of the sprint group no less than Hennie Kuiper. As a favorite of mine once sang, anger is an energy.

So What About Nibali?

I love watching and rooting for Nibali. I love his style of racing, the aggression, the beautiful descending, the bike-handling, and the pure determination to dig deep and do great things when it seems like he should be cracking. If you can name another current rider who has gotten more out of his natural talents than Nibali, I'd like to hear it.

Maybe I'm underestimating his natural ability... but he came up with not much fanfare, usually the sign of natural gifts showing themselves (or not) in the amateur ranks. Maybe he will be revealed as a cheater, as people who have a distaste for his Astana association will fear. You never know, I guess. But I don't see it. I see a guy who doesn't win all that much, compared to some of his peers, but when he does it's almost always impressive in some way. Usually a way that harkens back to the old school, real or imagined, and which makes us laud him for racing the right way.

Still, I think it's wrong to place him among the all-time greats. One Lombardia can't do that. Obviously his all-three-grand-tours record is wonderful, and even his unlikely, somewhat lucky Tour de France win got a boost of respectability from his win at La Toussuire in his otherwise unsuccessful defense. Except for Valverde, Nibali again beat everyone who was at the 2014 Tour.

But I don't know if he can win another one. At most, for Nibali to pad his resume for the Hall of Fame, his best bets would be more Giro victories, plus an MSR and maybe a world championship. He will be 32 the next time he climbs an actual hill in his national team jersey (Bergen, 2017), so those chances don't look great either, but there's a chance. If he can do that, maybe he goes down as the modern-day Gimondi. He's already surpassed Giuseppe Saronni's record, which was heavier on classics but only included Giri from the stage-race category. Maybe someday we will compare him to Fignon, at least in terms of tactics and results (the good ones) if not on-bike style.

For now, he's a refreshing, all-too-rare crossover guy who has used every advantage he can find to put himself in the conversation with the greats. He probably won't end up being considered an all-time great, but anyone who can even kick off the conversation nowadays is worthy of respect.