At 37, the Shark of Messina lost some of his bite over the past few seasons.
And after losing the wheel on Mount Etna in Tuesday’s stage, that the Astana-Qazaqstan star opted to share his decision with his hometown fans and family in this bustling port city only makes sense.
It’s an emotional homecoming for Nibali, and an even more moving goodbye for the Italian superstar.
“There was a lot of emotion riding here into Messina, my home, my family, my friends,” Nibali said on RAI’s Processo alla Tappa. “I’ve been waiting for this stage for a long time. It’s my city and it’s where it all started for me. This will be my last Giro and I want to share that with everyone.”
Nibali’s retirement will mark an end of an era for Italian racing, and he will leave a gaping hole.
In fact, Nibali’s exit marks a bit of an existential crisis for Italian cycling.
This cycling-proud nation once ruled European roads, and delivered one campionissimo after another over the decades.
When he turned pro in 2005, Nibali was the heir apparent to the Giro throne long held by the likes of Marco Pantani, Gilberto Simoni, and a generation of sometimes controversial Italians that dominated the 1990s and 2000s.
Nibali lived up to the hype, and then some.
In fact, he was the only rider to disrupt the Sky/Ineos run in the yellow jersey that ran uninterrupted from 2012 to 2019 except for one year.
That hiccup came in 2014, and Nibali barnstormed into the void left by Chris Froome’s early exit to deliver Italy’s last yellow jersey. With the exception of Fabio Aru, who beat Nibali to retirement, no Italian’s come close since.
After his rise, Italy’s GC hopes largely hung on Nibali’s slender but aggressive shoulders.
He would win two pink jerseys, with the last one in trademark dramatic fashion in 2016. After that, he could never take down the Sky/Ineos train when it was running at full strength.
Nibali is also just one of seven riders to win all three grand tours, with his lone Vuelta coming in 2010. Three years later, Chris Horner knocked back Nibali to win the 2013, but Vincenzo’s membership in the elite three-win club would be secured the next summer.
Nibali is the end of an era of sorts in modern cycling.
Not to say he wasn’t at the cutting edge of technology and training, but Nibali brought old-school verve and tactical acumen to his racing style that almost seems like a page from cycling’s black-and-white past compared to today’s watts-powered calculations and computer spread sheets.
Nibali’s imminent retirement doesn’t come as a complete surprise.
The world pandemic threw a wrench into Nibali’s last few seasons, and though he will still be swinging for the fences before this Giro is out, he simply wasn’t the same rider who won four grand tours and more than 50 races across his 18-year career.
The ‘Shark of Messina’ is part of ‘grand slam’ club for grand tours
At his peak, perhaps only Alberto Contador could match Nibali’s pure aggressive stance in stage racing, and few riders could read a race like Nibali. His come-from-behind victory in the 2016 Giro was his most unexpected and his most revealing of his character and powers.
With Nibali’s imminent ride into the sunset, Italy will face a future without a major grand tour contender.
The Italian media lives and thrives on promoting the “bigs” of cycling, be it a homegrown hero like Filippo Ganna or Tadej Pogačar.
The malaise in Italian cycling started long before Nibali’s rise. A string of doping scandals, financial crises, and the rise of the Americans, British, and now the Slovenians chipped away at Italian domination and influence in the peloton.
Nibali’s end puts Italian cycling against the ropes.
There are no “bigs” waiting in the wings. Ganna is an Olympic champion, but he wins in time trials and on the track, hardly the stuff that gets the pulse pumping, or sells newspapers.
Aru is already retired, and such riders as Giulio Ciccone are trying to step up, but there’s not a lot of talent coming up from the grassroots. Today, it’s young Slovenians, Brits, and Colombians creating a stir.
Without Nibali, Italian cycling will be missing one of its most charismatic and winning stars. His legacy will stand among the best in cycling, and everyone hopes it stands the test of time.
Nibali was the last of his breed, an attacking rider racing on instinct and tactics. His career traced the end of one era and the beginning of another one.