Culture

Timeless: A profile of Vincenzo Nibali

At 35, Nibali is still one of pro cycling's most exciting riders. He shares his favorite Giro d'Italia memories, as well as his thoughts on this year's race.

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It’s not common that one of the oldest riders in the pro peloton to also be the most exciting and aggressive. Yet that is truly the case with Vincenzo Nibali. Nibali’s career has spanned multiple chapters, from his days as the understudy to Ivan Basso, to his Tour de France win in 2014, and his classics victories in recent years. Now 35, Nibali is still one of the most explosive and cagy riders in the bunch.

Nibali, it seems, was virtually born on a bicycle. And even Giovanna Nibali, his mother, struggles to recall a time when Vincenzo was not cycling. Known as The Shark of Messina, Nibali’s moniker refers to his upbringing on the coast of Sicily, but also to his fierce racing style. Such style has won him the 2016 Giro d’Italia in the final days and the 2018 Milan-San Remo in the final kilometers. Nibali has once again placed the Giro at the center of his ambitions for 2020. It’s a decision that sprang from Nibali’s head and heart, as he likes the race route from a sporting level, and loves the fact that race will once again return to his native Sicily. And then of course there is the lure of adding a third victory to his crown.

We sat down with Nibali to the race to gather his perspective on this very special Giro.

Nibali climbs up a road solo with many fans on the sidelines screaming and cheering for him.
Vincenzo Nibali closed a near five-minute gap in the final weekend of the 2016 Giro to win the pink jersey.

What was it like growing up in Italy and watching the Giro? In France, everybody has some memory of growing up with the Tour. Do Italians have the same relationship to the Giro?

Yes, absolutely. The Giro d’Italia is a popular national event, and not only for cycling enthusiasts. It’s an event that everyone, in one way or another, has gotten to know. I think everyone has an anecdote of the Giro. My father and my grandfather, for example, followed the Giro on the radio and especially on the road, live. I first got to know it on television, then as soon as it passed through Sicily I didn’t miss a chance to go watch it.

What was your first memory of the Giro?

Gianni Bugno [1990]. My dad, Salvatore, didn’t miss a stage. And if, because of work, he couldn’t watch the race live, he recorded it. I always watched stages with him. My first memories are the years when Bugno was the Italian idol.

Was there a particular race or stage that you remember seeing that was unforgettably epic?

When I was a child I liked riding more than watching cycling races, honestly. Being in front of TV for the most important races, the Giro in particular, was a must, because it was my father’s passion. But, as soon as I could, I took the bike and went riding. But I remember that one of the first riders I supported was Biagio Conte, a Sicilian rider who, years later, I became my sports director on Liquigas. Life is strange sometimes!

What makes the Giro so special? What makes it different from all others?

As I said, for an Italian, the “Giro is the Giro,” so there is no need to explain why it is special. It is a fact. For a foreigner, who comes as a rider or as a spectator, the biggest difference lies in the variety of landscapes and the historical, almost mythical, climbs that have marked the history of cycling. And then there is the deep passion of the public. In every small town it’s a party. And it’s always different. And then there is the food, but that, for the riders, unfortunately is something that we cannot really appreciate during the race.

Why did you decide to focus on the Giro this year?

The first factor that convinced me is the route. I like it and I think it suits me. But the second reason comes from my heart more than my head and simply comes from the fact that we will race through Sicily.

Vincenzo Nibali cycling up a fan-lined road with mountains in the background.
Nibali claimed his first Giro victory in 2013, and is one of a handful to have won all three Grand Tours.

As the top Italian GC racer, do you feel obligated to do the Giro?

No, I haven’t felt the obligation in years. But when I didn’t race it, to focus on the Tour de France, some people turned their noses. I think it’s normal though. Italy is a country that is very attached to its favorites, especially when it comes to sport. They always want to see them on their roads. That said, even when I didn’t do the Giro, I still managed to wave the Italian colors high.

You had that amazing comeback to win the 2016 Giro in the last weekend, not unlike Froome’s comeback in 2018. Is the Giro just more unpredictable than the Tour? If so, why?

In part, I’d say so. It’s more the routes that make the difference. At the Tour there is a lot of competition and the tension is always high, but in some ways the race is more controlled thanks to more linear and less tricky routes. In Italy, on the other hand, because of its geography, it can present many opportunities for attacks and pitfalls. When the Alpine or Dolomite climbs arrive, the Giro can reach higher peaks, which also means that riders must contend with higher altitude. And this, in the third week of racing, can change everything.

What means more to you, your two Giro victories or the Tour de France victory?

That is impossible to answer. Each victory has its own story and holds with it very unique emotions. That said, my first Giro d’Italia victory in 2013 left me with indelible emotions. It was the one that I most wanted, the one I most sought after.

What is the most challenging aspect to this year’s race? Is there a particular stage that inspires you?

The most challenging aspect, for me, is to confirm myself once again at the highest level. At this point in my career, the challenge is not only with my competition, but also with myself. The motivation to do well is very strong. The change of team, the welcome and the stimulus that Trek-Segafredo has shown me has really given me a lot of confidence. I have set up a targeted path to get there in the best possible condition. The stages in Sicily, with the arrival on Mount Etna, will have a special flavor as well. And then obviously I’m waiting for the high mountains. It is difficult to pick one stage, really. The choice is hard, but it would be nice to leave a mark in stages with mythical climbs like the Stelvio Pass, Colle d’Agnello, or the Izoard. I am spoiled by all of the choices of great stages.