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Nibali Week: A Man For the Classics Too

The Shark expands his prey zone to the one-day races

Nibali wins Lombardia
Photo credit should read MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP via Getty Images

Day four of Nibali Week and it’s time to really stretch out our view of him as the most complete rider of his time. It’s time to talk about the Classics.

Quick tale of the tape: Of his 52 career wins going into this weekend, he has won 13 times in one-day races, including three monuments and another World Tour event, plus a smattering of Italian races and two national road race titles. But there are two races which stand out the most from his career: his Milano-Sanremo win, and his loss in the 2012 Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Before getting to those, however, I would be remiss in not mentioning a couple other events. In 2006, barely 16 months into his pro career, Nibali stunned Juan Flecha and Manuele Mori at the GP Ouest France-Plouay classic, a major victory for the 21-year-old on a punchy course where sprinters often contest the finale. The race had added some small climbs later in the race to encourage attacks, and Nibali had escaped with Flecha, just ahead of Mori. Inside the final 100 meters, Nibali went for it and outkicked the Spanish classics ace for a shocking win.

Cycling : 98th Liege - Bastogne - Liege 2012 Photo by Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

The LBL Loss

Nibali has suggested that his biggest regret is missing out on what would have been his first major classics milestone, a victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2012. He was flying that spring, having won Tirreno and come close at MSR, making the escape but conceding the sprint to Simon Gerrans ahead of Fabian Cancellara. LBL, still a murderer’s row of climbs and finishing in Ans via the old, difficult approach, seemed like a better bet, and he nearly pulled off a stunner. Going solo from the Côte de Roche aux Faucons, 20km from the line, Nibali was only caught by a lone rider, Max Iglinsky, and not until the red kite was in sight. But Iglinsky timed his effort better, came past Nibali, and it was the Kazakh who soloed home to glory.

LBL would have been massive for him and his legacy, looking back ten years later. It’s really the only prize from his grand tours/monuments campaign that he missed out on, accepting that he was never going to win Flanders or Roubaix. Six of the eight most coveted trophies... that would have been cool.

Nibali’s 2015 Lombardia win
Photo credit should read LUK BENIES/AFP via Getty Images

Wait, What About Lombardia?

Nibali wouldn’t win another classic until the fall of 2015, by which time he was better known for winning all of the grand tours. But he revived his reputation in the classics, winning the Giro di Lombardia, a/k/a Il Lombardia, in both 2015 and 2017. The 2015 win is another Nibali special. He was coming off a mostly forgettable season, where he was unable to defend his Tour de France title, placing fourth — although extending a run of 10 consecutive grand tour finishes in the top ten, yet another impressive and unusual record for Nibali, being the first to do so since Indurain. He did win the Italian road title and raced in the tricolore-striped Astana kit, but at the Vuelta a España his success streak would end when he was tossed from the race for holding on to a team car in a chase back from a crash.

Nibali had something to prove and few chances left, so he came into Lombardia set on redeeming his season. He rode with the favorites throughout until the final descent of consequence, before a short climb and descent to the town of Como. Nibali the ace descender came out to play. This is one for the Museum of Crazy Cycling Skills:

Nibali flew down the Civiglio fast enough to gain 40 seconds on the group, and was never seen again. Two years later, he countered an attack by Thibaut Pinot, again on the Civiglio, and got free from the Frenchman on the descent for another solo victory. Just two big, beautiful wins in a race that fits the rider to a tee.

Cycling: 109th Milan-Sanremo 2018 Photo by pool lp Tim de Waele/Getty Images

And Now, MSR

Nobody would say this about the “sprinters’ classic,” Milano-Sanremo. The most inclusive of the monuments, it’s in some ways the hardest to win, so when Nibali achieved this last great, monumental success, it just felt much bigger than any of his classics wins that had come before. I could describe Nibali’s victory — launched halfway up the Poggio when he latched on to a surprising, and uncovered, attack by Krists Neilands. The two got a gap while the favorites — Sagan, Kwiatkowski, and any number of Quick Steppers — looked around at each other. But don’t let me carry on, just watch this riveting stuff:

Nibali said afterwards that he attacked as part of a combination flier/defensive strategy to protect the Bahrain Merida sprinter Sonny Colbrelli. When he did find himself away, he stomped the easy part of the climb, flew down the descent but without effort, gathered strength for the final 2.5km of flat roads, and then just went all out. As we often say with MSR, there are a lot of ways to win this race, more than any of the other monuments, but for each rider there is probably only one pathway to victory, and this was Nibali’s.

Cycling: 109th Milan-Sanremo 2018 Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Of the seven riders to win all three grand tours, only Merckx, Gimondi and Nibali have won MSR, and only these three plus Hinault have won any two monuments. Fully 48 riders have won both a grand tour and a monument classic, but of those 48, only 15 have won Milano-Sanremo: Belloni, Girardengo, Defraye, Binda, Guerra, Bartali, Coppi, Bobet, Poulidor, Merckx, Gimondi, Moser, Kelly, Fignon, Bugno and Bugno, the last being Kelly in 1992.

Obviously this is ultra-elite company for Nibali, but to me the two most interesting parts of this are the years and the guys not on the list. Nibali is nowhere near the dominant grand tour rider of his generation, not ahead of Froome, Contador, Armstrong, Indurain and now Pogacar. No disrespect to those guys (about MSR anyway); what is so fascinating is that since 1992 the sport of cycling changed into a much more compartmentalized affair from which it is just now emerging. And Nibali is a big part of why it is changing back.

It’s stuff like this that separates Nibali from just “a guy who won a lot.” He won in interesting ways, sure, but digging deeper, he may have changed the sport. Not all by himself, but Nibali has clearly shown the way back to a sport where the Tour de France contenders don’t hold everything back for July, but will show up in the spring races, which some (ahem!) consider the peak season for cycling. The monuments and some of the related classics are just wonderful races, as the Tour guys sitting at home watching them would probably have told you, and even if they don’t fit a grand tour rider’s program to a tee, that slight variation in their training is worth it if you can write your name in these coveted record books.

We have already seen Pogacar take up the mantle of all-round success, nearly winning Flanders in a four-rider sprint for the line and taking fifth in MSR. Paris-Roubaix probably remains off limits for most Tour de France contenders, but you’ll see a number of them on the white roads of Tuscany in Strade Bianche. You will see more and more of them really contesting LBL and La Flèche Wallonne and Amstel Gold — races where the grand tour guys did sometimes show up full bore. There are a lot of factors that have gone into restoring this pride in the sport as a whole, not just Nibali’s successes. But every group effort needs a few leaders. Nibali was the first big name, and Pogacar has clearly set out to be the next.

115th Il Lombardia 2021
A pair of aces
Photo by Fred Mons - Pool/Getty Images