It was never pretty, never resembled a typical Giro d'Italia, never seemed to go according to script. Except in the end.
Vincenzo Nibali, the Most Interesting Man in the Cycling World, did exactly what all the pundits expected him to do, if you just read today's final standings and a bunch of pre-Giro prediction posts. He showed everyone he was the strongest rider in the Giro, and came home with the Trofia Sensa Fine -- the never-ending trophy -- for the second time, and for his fourth overall grand tour win. Ho hum, nothing to see here. Right?
Well, except everything. Except for a three-day power failure by Nibali in the Dolomites and Trentino region. Except for Steven Kruijswijk making the leap to grand tour heavyweight, and Esteban Chaves inserting himself into the conversation for the next ten years. Except for a constant barrage of great rides by foreigners, who held the maglia rosa almost throughout the entire race, unless you count Gianluca Brambilla, who rides for the Etixx-Quick Step squad. Except for all the odds being against Nibali heading into the final weekend, with too many riders ahead of him to make his ascension a reasonable hope.
So the final victory was extraordinary, when you take all of it in. Nibali made his path to victory a hopelessly circuitous one, and seemed to have gotten lost before finding his acupuncturist, overcoming some sort of stomach issue, and putting himself back on the map in the nick of time. But is this so extraordinary, if you think about the fact that it's Nibali we are talking about?
Ring of Honor
First off, Nibali has a pedigree nobody in this race could match. Nibali entered the exclusive club of riders to win all three grand tours by riding at the highest levels. Mostly we are talking about climbing -- Nibali is competent against the watch but I wouldn't say too much more. But the Shark's grand tour palmares include victory at La Toussuire last year, wins at Chamrousse, Planche des Belles Filles, and Hautacam the year before (plus second at Risoul and third at Pla d'Adet), wins at Tre Cime di Lavaredo and Bardonecchia, fourth at the horrible Angliru.
Who of his rivals came into this Giro with anything like that sort of grand tour climbing pedigree? Alejandro Valverde's last Tour stage win was in 2012. Esteban Chaves had one Vuelta stage to his name. That's one more than Steven Kruijswijk, who is a different person now perhaps since his surgery to correct contraction of veins in his femoral artery -- an element of his circulation which would surely make a big difference at the top level of professional cycling. Great news that he's on the upswing, and count me among those who are rooting for him to do well. But should we go straight to rating him as Nibali's superior on the climbs before he's won a stage yet? At least some commentators with a sharper eye than me for such things said that Kruijswijk looked like he was off his game Friday, before the crash. We'll never know the answer to whether he'd have lost the jersey anyway. His career record says maybe, maybe not.
The point is that Nibali's career record would suggest that he is quite clearly the best climber of the bunch, still, even though those days might end soon. Another key component is the ability to get around the course in one piece, something which Kruijswijk has a special appreciation for now. It's probably just as shocking to think of Valverde beating Kruijswijk on GC after where things stood following the Dolomites, but Valverde is a perfect example of professionalism on the bike. Love him or no, he does everything pretty well: descending, holding his position, etc. [Even reading a newspaper while riding.] Kruijswijk seemed to be holding everything together extremely well, but his Giro disappeared in a moment of inattention. Nibali had none of those.
Nibali will go down in the record books as an ace bike handler, whose descending skills always put him at an advantage. He will also be remembered for a Tour de France victory forged on the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix fame. There is more to cycling than the ability to process oxygen under duress. There are numerous skills, mental and physical, that go into it, and in these areas Nibali has few peers. He is a pro, through and through. And his victory is a lesson to those who don't know what "it's never over til the final stage" truly means.
[Of course, it would be wrong to overlook his lapse in professionalism at last year's Vuelta where he got way too much help from the team car while chasing back the leaders after being held up behind a crash. Also, Nibali has a prickly relationship with Chris Froome after blaming him for a crash, and then attacking him while Froome got held up on the La Toussuire stage. Cycling is never simple, and Nibali is not a saint. But he does tend to take very good care of business.]
Never the Easy Way
Is there any such thing as a simple Nibali victory? One: his earlier Giro victory, where he took pink in the first long time trial, on stage 8, and held it to the finish. He won the final time trial and mountain stage, sandwiched around a Gavia-Stelvio stage that got snowed out. He left Rigoberto Uran in the dust, by nearly five minutes. It was as conventional, predictable and dull as grand tour victories get.
Other than that, it's been pure drama, and in that sense this year's win is once again pure Nibali. His Vuelta win was unforgettable, coming as it did out of the blue... sorta. He had been 7th in the Tour the previous year and third in the Giro behind his teammate Basso that spring. But he was untested as a team leader, and only inherited the lead in the Vuelta when Igor Anton crashed out. Nibali held a slim lead over Joaquim Rodriguez, then gave it back, only for Purito to punt nearly four minutes in the time trial, which put Nibali back on top, with only Ezequiel Mosquera in range. On the final Bola del Mundo stage Mosquera reversed his 50 second deficit to Nibali on the road, and looked to be in position to poach the win at the death, but in a heart-stopping final climb, the seemingly beaten Nibali made up all but nine seconds of his deficit, through grit and determination -- and sparing us the spectacle of a Vuelta Champion defrocking (Mosquera lasted a mere ten days post-race before he got popped for EPO).
His Tour win was another shocker. Chris Froome crashed out of the race before the cobblestones on stage five, and Nibali was already in Yellow thanks to a stage win in Yorkshire. By the end of the cobbles his closest competition was Alberto Contador, 2.30 back, and just a few days away from his own catastrophic turn of events (crashed, DNF). Nibali's win was nearly wire-to-wire, just ceding yellow on the first and tenth stages, but such stats hardly tell the story of his incredible ride on the cobbles.
One more thing must be said about Nibali, that once again matches up with the results of the 2016 Giro: that he walks through the door of opportunity when it opens. Has he ever beaten Froome head to head in a grand tour? Nope, and never will. Contador? Again, no. Nibali can't be included in the conversation for the best rider of his time, without those sort of results. But when circumstances gave him a chance -- at the 2010 Vuelta, the 2014 Tour, and again this year -- he greedily took it, just like a winner does. Opportunities do not go wasted.
The Astana Thing
I hate to "go there" but I know it's part of every major development. Is Nibali clean? How did he suddenly come back from a poor run of form? Doesn't he ride for those cheating cheats at Astana?
The last part is undeniable. If you want to know why nobody trusts Astana (and don't already), go here. The team's culture is problematic, at least at the management level. Alexandre Vinokourov is in charge. Nibali trains with Paolo Slongo, who has battled suggestions of ties to Michele Ferrari, the notorious doping doctor. There isn't a way to untie Nibali from his team's problems. But there isn't a way to tie him directly to them either. Nibali has never been the subject of any true suspicions, beyond his being on Astana. He has occasionally been outspoken against doping, which isn't proof but suggests that he isn't doping, since the cheats tend to not want to draw attention.
As to this Giro, it doesn't seem implausible that he went from being ill to well again, and soaring in the Alps. As I described above, all Nibali did in the final weekend was return to being the rider we expected him to be, while his unproven competition reverted to their just-below-champion levels. If he "took something" on the second rest day... does that make any sense? He certainly wasn't riding like a guy who "took something" beforehand. Why would he suddenly resort to "taking something" just as the race was about to enter France, of all places? It's a facile argument but doesn't have much support back in the real world. I can't disprove the whispers, any more than he can, but to me they amount to nothing more than "his team is bad" and "he won the race."
In the final analysis, Nibali prevailed by being the best rider here. Better than an injury-weakened Kruijswijk, better than a depleted and inexperienced Chaves, better than a veteran in Valverde who doesn't like the type of high-alpine peaks we just watched them ride, better than a mysteriously fading Rigoberto Uran, better than Jungels and Majka and Amador and Atapuma... all guys you would never expect him to lose to at the Giro.
In the end, Nibali went back to being his usual self, a very predictable outcome, albeit in predictably wild and unpredictable way.