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Nibali Week Wrapup: Il Nuovo Campionissimo

One final look at why Nibali’s career is so important, and so treasured

Champion of Italy Photo by Fabio Averna/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Thanks for sticking it out with me through Nibali Week! I know I couldn’t stand to let this moment pass without going back over this amazing career, and I hope a few of you are similarly obsessed with such things. He really is (soon to be, was) one of the greatest entertainers we have seen in the sport of cycling since the new millennium.

The final race I want to call attention to as part of telling Nibali’s story was his victory in the 2016 Giro d’Italia. It was his last grand tour title, at age 31, after which Father Time and improving, younger competition made his struggles more profound. But before we can be done writing the story of his career, we have to take on the subject of suffering.

Nibali’s recent interview at Cycling News talked briefly about this race, and separately about his learning how to suffer as a young rider working in the Fassa Bortolo and Liquigas systems. In contrast to guys like Tadej Pogačar, Remco Evenepoel, Egan Bernal and the rest of the current crop of incredible young shooting stars, Nibali did not become an overnight success. Yes, he had early success and showed character by placing high in time trials at a young age, but it took years in the pro ranks before he was even told to race for himself in a grand tour. That ability to suffer was always there — hence the ITT results — but years of service drove that point home to where he was mentally tougher than most. Talent and toughness can be a little bit in conflict with each other, though in saying that I am not casting aspersions on the young guys named above. No, there are plenty of other super talented guys who never learned how to truly suffer and don’t warrant a mention in an article like this.

But anyway, Nibali certainly did learn to suffer, to fully commit himself, early and often, in part because his talent was such that he couldn’t win big races on that basis alone. As time went on, he learned the art of knowing when to go deepest, the art of patience and reading a race. So when things came to a head, if Nibali had the form, he was going to be there.

2016 Giro d’Italia - Stage Twenty One Photo by Mauro Ujetto/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Giro Win That Fell From Heaven

His final grand tour victory in 2016, best remembered for Dutch guys and snowbanks, was pure Nibali. Following his historic Tour victory in 2014, Nibali naturally went back to France to defend his title the next year but slumped out of competition in the first week before finding his footing again and attacking to a stage victory and some redemption by the race’s end, taking fourth place. The next year he returned to the Tour, as a rider of his stature does, but not before hedging his bets and racing the Giro first. He again started very slowly... after trying some longer crank arms, Nibali started to mysteriously lose time and by the end of the second time trial, an uphill race to Alpi di Siusi, he was nearly three minutes behind a suddenly red-hot Steven Kruijswijk.

But the major mountains were still in play, and Nibali didn’t panic. He switched back to shorter crank arms and perhaps for additional reasons he started going well again. On his worst day Nibali was a full 1.43 out of second place, and 4.43 overall, but when Kruijswijk disastrously bounced himself off a snowbank atop the Colle del Agnello and out of competition, the Shark went on the hunt.

Cycling: 99th Tour of Italy 2016 / Stage 19
Photo by KT/Tim De Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

And then...

Nibali got away with Chaves, eventually dropping him for the stage win and clawing back 53 seconds. Knowing he had the better legs, Nibali patiently waited the next day for the final climb of the Giro and rode Chaves off his wheel and into second place overall, for good. It was a stunning reversal, flipping two podium places and a 4:43 deficit in just two days, the last two consequential stages of the Giro. After a dominant Giro win three years earlier where he paraded around the country in Pink, this time Nibali raced in the maglia rosa for just a lone stage — the final one.

But aside from blind luck, it was the Shark at his finest, knowing when to press his advantage and not a moment too soon or late. If he had lost hope after stage 18, he didn’t show it. Veteran grinders don’t give up easily, if at all. Even the previous year’s Tour, forgettable as maillot jaune defenses go, featured Nibali on the attack, winning at La Toussuire, and surging up to fourth place. By then, Nibali had mastered the art of getting all he could out of a three week race, and if someone left the door open to him like they did at the 2016 Giro, he was going to walk through it.

Cycling: 99th Tour of Italy 2016 / Stage 20
Nibali soling home on stage 20
Photo by KT/Tim De Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

Il Nuovo Campionissimo

Quick question... what is the best race on Italian soil that Vincenzo Nibali has never won?

The answer is actually pretty easy, it’s Strade Bianche. But if you had to name a second choice, you might have to do some digging. Here is an approximate ranking of Italian professional races and whether he has won them.

  1. Giro d’Italia — check
  2. Milano Sanremo — check
  3. Il Lombardia — check
  4. Italian national road race — check
  5. Strade Bianche — nope
  6. Tirreno-Adriatico — check
  7. Giro del Trentino (a/k/a Tour of the Alps) — check

From there you have some short stage races — Coppi e Bartali, Giro di Sicilia — and a slew of one day events — Trofeo Laigueglia, Giro dell’Emilia, Coppa Agostini, Coppa Sabatini, Coppa Bernocchi, Milano-Torino, Gran Piemonte, etc. — where Nibali has enjoyed several wins. Somewhere in there lies the answer to what is the second-best race in Italy that Nibali never won, but it’s not a very exciting answer.

Why he never won Strade Bianche is a bit of a mystery. He raced it seven times, not much considering its 15 editions, all during Nibali’s career. In the same time he has raced Milano Sanremo 13 times, Lombardia 14 times, and LBL 15 times. He’s also done Tirreno-Adriatico 13 times. Since 2009, he has raced quite earnestly in Italy every year in the month of March ... but on only half of those occasions did he bother to stop by the Tuscan classic. This might seem remarkable given that it ends with a climb to the Campo in Siena, seemingly a good race for him, and didn’t he spend his junior years trekking up to Tuscany every weekend? We know further that Nibali raced on the White Roads in the Giro d’Italia on two occasions, 2010 and 2021, though being before and after his peak years, it is no surprise that he achieved just an OK result each time. Still... it’s an instinctive race with challenging technical aspects and lots of climbing. How does this not just scream “NIBALI”?

Cycling: 10th Strade Bianche 2016 Photo by Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

The answer, I think, lies in timing and in competition. Re: the latter, Pogačar is the only pure climber to have won the race, and he’s obviously much more than a climber. It’s a race more for classics guys. Also it comes at a time when the cobbled classics riders are approaching their peak form, a month before Flanders, while Nibali and the Ardennes climbers and/or Giro d’Italia combatants are building form but undoubtedly two or more weeks behind the cobbled warriors, meaning he’s never come into the race in anything like his top condition. The beginning of March is just too soon for the LBL or Giro guys. So yeah, maybe, given the terrain, he could teach those classics types a lesson about his home-away-from-home roads. But it would come at a cost to several of his other most important goals. I don’t blame Nibali if he never decided to make this tradeoff, which appears to be the case.

That is quite a roundabout way of getting to my main point, which is that he is maybe the most important Italian cyclist in my lifetime? He is one of only three riders who were active since I was born in... let’s just call it the Johnson Administration... to win the Tour de France, along with Marco Pantani and Felice Gimondi. Pantani is a cross-off — even if you want to close your eyes and take his Tour and Giro wins at face value, he has no record to speak of in the Classics. Gimondi is a close call, and I might give the nod to The Phoenix based on his win in Paris-Roubaix, plus MSR, Lombardia and the three grand tours. That is one hell of a record! But the 1960s were drastically different times.

Roubaix Gimondi
Gimondi wins Paris-Roubaix

A quick all-time ranking of Italian cyclists:

  1. Fausto Coppi
  2. Alfredo Binda
  3. Gino Bartali
  4. Felice Gimondi
  5. Costante Girardengo
  6. Vincenzo Nibali
  7. Gastone Nencini
  8. Fiorenzo Magni
  9. Francesco Moser
  10. Giuseppe Saronni

Boy, I hadn’t been thinking about Saronni during these posts. So I should mention, he is a winner of both MSR and the Giro d’Italia, the latter on two occasions, albeit not against very strong competition in either case. He is one win behind Moser all time (141 total victories), way ahead of Nibali’s 52, and in a pretty decent variety as well. But he only started the Tour once and the Vuelta four times, and never finished any of them.

Cycling : World Championships
Junior bronze medalist, 2002 world championships, Zolder
Photo by Tim De Waele/Getty Images

Anyway, at the conclusion of Nibali Week, one thing you can say with certainty is that he has been the most important Italian rider since the Age of Merckx, and he has been just about the most important rider of any nationality in the 21st century. He won a lot of the sport’s most prestigious trophies. He helped change the way champions see themselves and chase milestones, bringing us back to a time when the best riders are at most of the best races. He himself has been tremendously entertaining, a living monument to all of the different ways a cyclist should apply himself in pursuit of victory, including several ways that are quite often overlooked. No doubt he is a modern, sophisticated athlete in many ways, but I’ll always remember him as a throwback to past eras when the Giants of the Road won glory in glorious ways. He did all of this with great dignity (most of the time... we all have our moments). He did this, as far as we can tell, as honestly as anyone from his era. And in the process, he brought his quiet, mysterious region of the Mediterranean into the cycling spotlight like never before.

Bravo, bravissimo Vincenzo! Thank you for bringing so much excitement back to cycling!

105th Giro d’Italia 2022 - Stage 5 Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images