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Coming Monday: It’s Nibali Week!

All next week: a memorable career explained in five particularly memorable wins

Nibali wins in Risoul Luk Benies

Next weekend, Vincenzo Nibali plans to climb off the bike for the final time, following a hopefully respectful performance in the Giro di Lombardia, a/k/a Il Lombardia, a race which numbers among his favorites. He will do so as the greatest cyclist in Sicilian history, and as a first ballot member of the Italian Cycling Hall of Fame. He will have time to reflect on his quirky career, one less of pure dominance or greatness so much as a demonstration of intelligence and will. And as I tend to do from time to time, when a singularly interesting cyclist says goodbye, I will declare it his week.

Welcome to Nibali Week, a story told in five victories.

This is the primer, a quick check in on who Nibali the cyclist has been. I spent some time scrolling back through our coverage of Nibali, and you won’t be surprised to hear that it took us a little while to take note. Nibali won a couple races in 2006, his second full season racing at the top level, and the first year of the Cafe’s existence, but he hardly exploded Pogs-like into our collective consciousness, right from the jump. The earliest mention of him that I could find came from a preview of the 2007 Giro d’Italia when I named him my white jersey favorite. [He finished fourth behind that shooting star Andy Schleck, second overall, as well as Riccò and Pozzovivo.]

Basso in Aprica
Nibali, taking a quick breather, paced Basso to Giro glory in 2010

The early part of his career saw Nibali playing role of the younger, talented teammate for several years, supporting guys like Franco Pellizotti and eventually, more notably, Ivan Basso. In the post-Postal power vacuum when we wondered who the next grand tour champions would be, Nibali formed a duo-to-watch with Roman Kreuziger, although the Czech said in 2010 that he was the future of Liquigas and Nibali had a “small motor.” It wasn’t a particularly nice or even true thing to say — guess which one went on to win the Tour? — but there is a side of Kreuziger’s comment that is almost too perfect. Pure talent is not what got Nibali where he wanted to go. He wasn’t lacking in talent, of course, but he would have to bring more than just talent to the table. Since then, the story of Nibali’s career has almost never been about pure climbing talent. It’s been about... everything else.

Nibali’s ability in time trials was apparent right away, confirmed by a pair of bronze medals in the Worlds junior and U23 races, and some very competitive results at the senior level — enough to make you wonder about his GC chops. He would eventually win three elite time trials, along with a steady diet of high finishes and small-race wins. It was a weapon, as were its underlying elements of concentration and pure will.

So too was his descending. Maybe to the point where I got carried away in thinking about this, because he had his limits, made his share of mistakes, and didn’t have a monopoly on the skill. But the beauty of it was how he stood for the proposition that there were a lot of ways to win a bike race, which is when the sport goes from cool to truly fascinating and exciting. Nibali’s career has been all of that. And again, his ability to concentrate, to plan his movements, and to will himself beyond where a lot of other riders would go, set him apart.

USA Pro Challenge - Stage Two Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

And finally, his psychological long game, which was peerless. Nibali’s stage racing success was marked not by dominating stage wins but by timely maneuvers, almost no two of which were alike. His grand tour successes fell into no particular pattern, notable since the races themselves have pretty predictable patterns. Nibali wasn’t a guy who played to his strengths regardless of the situation, he was a rider who read the race, day by day, and seized his advantage when it opened up to him, whether it was where he expected it to be or not. Like his descending, the ability to read a race is not unique to Nibali alone, but it is a dying art, or at least a very elusive one, and when practiced by someone who really knows how to use it, it brings the sport of cycling to its full flowering.

We see great champions come and go, but rarely do we see someone who brought out so much of what the sport has to offer that it warrants a week-long tribute to his achievements. Vincenzo Nibali’s career explains so much of the sport that isn’t always visible to the naked eye, so much that makes me a cycling fan. For him, a full week is necessary.

Coming Monday: Nibali Week opens with his breakthrough victory at the 2011 Vuelta a España. Join us all week for the fun, and get ready for the Shark of the Straights to make his final attack in Lombardia next week.