Since the new millennium began, a fair amount of the talk concerning grand tour winners involved riders on a sudden rise to greatness. Some of that, especially early on, was artificial in nature and to be dismissed from the history books, as best we can. More recently, we have seen champions arrive suddenly, not because of EPO but because, well, talent is just harnessed differently now... and there’s a lot of it. Something like that.
But blending in amongst these shooting stars is one rider, highly decorated, rated in many ways among the sport’s greatest champions in recent times, whose ascension was slow and methodical, kind of a refreshing throwback to the way things used to be. The greatest of the great, guys like Merckx and Hinault, rode four seasons before achieving breakthrough success. When they won their first Tour, LeMond was 25, Indurain 27, Anquetil 27. This is how things are supposed to work. Cycling greatness takes time. Vincenzo Nibali is testament to that.
Nibali broke into the pro ranks with Fassa Bortolo in 2005, spent a single season there, and switched to Roberto Amadio’s newly-formed Liquigas-Bianchi squad in 2006. Back then, Italian riders were presumed to prefer riding for Italian teams, as had mostly been the case throughout the sport’s history, but with the demise of Fassa Bortolo after 2005 and the loss of powerhouse Mapei three years earlier, the choices in front of Nibali would have been just Liquigas or Lampre — the country’s longest running project that was mostly known around then as the team where Damiano Cunego and Gilberto Simoni were pretending to be able to work together.
As a Sicilian, Nibali grew up partly inside and partly alien to the Italian cycling world centered around large clubs from Tuscany and further north. He did choose to stay “home” by getting in on the ground floor at Liquigas, and having already delivered some promising performances at the amateur ranks, Nibali could have entered Liquigas as a hot property. When he won the prestigious (now World Tour) GP Ouest-France/Plouay in his debut season for Liquigas, just 21 years old, you could have said then that he was ticketed for big things. But he would not take the fast track.
Liquigas was the team of Stefano Garzelli, the former Giro d’Italia winner in 2000, a great way to launch a team. And if Garzelli wasn’t the rider of the future, he had plenty of talent around him in Danilo Di Luca and Franco Pellizotti (plus Mario Cipollini, Daniele Bennati, Enrico Gasparotto, Luca Paolini, Michael Albasini, and any number of riders who would liven up the roads over the years). By 2007 Nibali was propping up Di Luca’s quixotic Giro win, and by 2009 he suddenly found himself as a lieutenant to Ivan Basso, the anointed successor of Lance Armstrong. Basso was one of the first to depart the sport after Operación Puerto, and one of the first to come back, taking the reins for Liquigas’ grand tour efforts starting at the ‘09 Giro.
Nibali had ridden into 11th place at the 2008 Giro and with Basso reviving his career at the ‘09 edition, Nibali was sent to ride his first Tour de France, sharing GC ambitions with teammate Roman Kreuziger, and enjoying the view of Pellizotti riding off the front every day to victory in the KOM competition. Nibali would quietly hang with the Schlecks and Contadors long enough to take sixth overall, an outstanding first effort. But he wasn’t on the same plane as those two, and Liquigas decided to be bold and go for major titles in 2010, its sixth full season. By then, its two most notable victories were the ‘07 Giro and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, both by Di Luca, who was then in disgrace. Liquigas was a big team with big ambitions. It needed to do better than impressive minor placings. It needed a win.
The plan for 2010, then, was to send Kreuziger back to the Tour, but recall Nibali for Giro duty as lieutenant to Basso, who had taken a solid third in his 2009 return and would come in as the favorite this time, along with World Champion but hard-luck grand tour rider Cadel Evans. After the opening stages in the Netherlands, the Giro hit Italian soil with a TTT won by Liquigas, putting Nibali in the maglia rosa for the first time in his career. Things then went haywire on a wet and wild stage through the strade bianche, whose legend was just beginning to grow. Evans took the win and the Nibali-Basso duo conceded just under two minutes. Then things got weirder in Abruzzo, when the top riders conceded 13 minutes to a group including Richie Porte and David Arroyo, riders who might not just hand back their advantage when asked politely by the bigger stars.
But this Giro was something of a major mountains checklist, going from Monte Zoncolan to the Plan de Corones, then the Mortirolo stage, concluding with a Dolomite feast. Starting on the Zoncolan, Basso broke away for the win, dropping Evans and Vinokourov and moving into third place. He climbed past Porte on the Plan de Corones time trial, but still needed to find 2.27 in the final two stages to dispatch Arroyo. Liquigas struck hard on the stage to Aprica, riding a vicious tempo with their entire team over the initial climbs, then Szylvester Szmyd took over up the Mortirolo, finally handing the reins to Nibali and Basso, and the duo raced over the summit with Michele Scarponi having taken back enough time to have victory in their sights.
But Arroyo fought back on the descent, while Basso took things gingerly, causing his break mates, both outstanding downhillers, to wait for him. Arroyo started the final climb to Aprica having conceded only 30 seconds from his advantage. This is when Nibali really took over, driving the winning trio up the modest slopes at a pace that positively cracked Arroyo (who lost over three minutes) and delivered the maglia rosa to Basso. The pair would defend the jersey the rest of the way, with Nibali holding on to third place with a final-day time trial result that widened his lead over Scarponi to 13 seconds.
Finding old quotes from Nibali about this Giro isn’t easy, but at the time I was convinced watching him help deliver this extremely hard-fought win to his teammate as a sign that he had entered a new phase of his career. We had tabbed Nibali as a rider to watch, but now he was a Giro successor-in-waiting to the 32-year-old Basso. He had built his own strength as well as his place in the team, to the point where you could see Nibali as a clear road captain on a team hunting to win grand tours. And we wouldn’t have long to wait.
Basso joined Kreuziger at the Tour in July of 2010 for something of a victory lap and a chance to pitch in to ... whatever Kreuziger could accomplish, in this case a perfectly cromulent 7th place. That left the Vuelta a España to Nibali and maybe Kreuziger, with guys like Zaugg and Santaromita for some support. Ten days into the race Nibali had stalked the overall lead, just two seconds off the pace, when Igor Anton made the first major move to take the lead in Andorra on stage 11, 45 seconds up on the Sicilian. But his shock crash and withdrawal days later on the road to Peña Cabarga opened the door back up to Nibali, with Ezequiel Mosquera and Joaquim Rodriguez, all mere seconds apart. Nibali took the lead over Rodriguez by 4” on that fateful day, then saw Rodriguez take it back two stages later as he and Mosquera dispatched the Italian.
However, this was no Giro with a murderer’s row of mountains deciding their fate. That would be played by a 46km time trial at Peñafiel, where Nibali would concede 1.55 to the stage winner Peter Velits, but regain the lead with what looked like a potential winning margin. He beat Mosquera by 18 seconds, pushing his lead out to 39”, and Rodriguez, characteristically, fell completely out of contention, dropping over four minutes, not even the best Rodriguez on the stage (that would go to Gustavo, only 2 minutes back of Nibali). It was down to a two-man race. But it was far from over.
On a stage as riveting as the Mortirolo had been, Nibali found himself as the one playing defense, desperately clinging to a dwindling lead on the final climbing stage to the Bola del Mundo ski resort. With so little time in hand, Nibali and his compatriots had shadowed Mosquera all day, but with just over 4km to go, the Spaniard made his move, and after a minute or so he got a gap. At the 3.3km mark Nibali had shed the remaining climbers from the lead group and was closing in on Mosquera, catching him as they hit the 3km to go sign and a dastardly steep, narrow ramp barely visible through the crowds closing in on both sides. Mosquera looked all the world like the superior climber, gritting his teeth and sailing up the ascent in the lead, while just behind him Nibali furiously wrestled his bike up the hill, giving everything to stay in contact.
The effort cost him, and Nibali couldn’t hang on, letting out a gap that grew to nearly 20 seconds. Then he would recuperate, close back to around 10” on the easier sections, only to see it go back out again on the next vicious incline. Bobbing and weaving perilously through the crowd, Nibali looked like a guy on the edge of letting go. But he wouldn’t. He fought on and eventually caught Mosquera’s wheel in sight of the line, allowing his rival to take the stage while he secured the overall victory.
In victory, Nibali cut a unique figure. His 26th birthday was around the corner, and it was easy to see big days ahead, but he was already entering his prime. Moreover, he had won in a fashion that didn’t make anyone assign him the sort of nicknames that you give majestic climbers — the Eagle of this or the Angel of that. He ground out a victory under tremendous pressure, turning himself inside out to stave off an impressive challenger, clawing away at the superior climber by sheer force of will. I know I sound like I am assigning psychological merit to one guy and perhaps unfairly denying it to another, but watch that video and tell me how else Nibali was able to stay with Mosquera. [Mosquera would soon get banned for EPO detected during the race, so I don’t feel bad about any shade thrown here.]
Nibali might have the kind of small motor that Kreuziger once said of him — and in fairness to the Czech he was a supportive teammate and friend to Nibali at this Vuelta, so maybe we shouldn’t make too much of an offhand, offseason remark to a reporter. But even if it might have been true, Nibali showed everyone that he also had a big heart, and a broad set of skills to bring to bear on his opponents. We came into 2010 looking for guys who could soar like eagles in the highest mountains of Europe. But we left the season marveling at a guy who circled like a hungry shark.