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PARIS (AFP) — When Vincenzo Nibali pulled on the race winner’s yellow jersey on the podium beneath the Arc du Triomphe on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, the Astana captain was fulfilling in some ways his own destiny.
The 29-year-old Sicilian became the first Italian since Marco Pantani in 1998 to win the Tour de France, but his success will have surprised no one who knew him as a child.
The Shark, as he has long been known, has been certain about his true calling since falling in love with cycling as a boy in Messina.
He once told a surgeon sewing up a gash in his thigh to “do a good job because I’m going to be a professional cyclist.”
Even back then, Nibali, known as the best and most fearless descender in the peloton, was a daredevil whose escapades regularly necessitated a trip to hospital to be patched up. His mother, Giovanna, said “all the doctors knew his name.”
It was just such single-minded determination that would eventually produce a Tour de France champion.
When he set out at the beginning of this season, Nibali had only one goal in his mind.
“All season I was focusing on the Tour while other riders tried to be strong in every race,” he said.
There was also a certain logical progression to the Astana leader’s success at the Grand Boucle.
Nibali is no Chris Froome, darting out of obscurity as a rider for the Continental squad Barloworld in 2009 to announce himself as a major player with a runner-up finish at the 2011 Vuelta a España. The Italian is the same age as his predecessor as Tour champion, but their career trajectories have been very different.
Right from the beginning Nibali showed promise, winning a stage of the Settimana Internazionale di Coppi e Bartali as a 21-year-old. A year later he finished 19th in his first grand-tour appearance at the Giro d’Italia.
He developed gradually, finishing sixth at the 2009 Tour and third at the 2010 Giro before winning the 2010 Vuelta, widely considered the least prestigious of the three grand tours.
Nibali’s progress continued with a second-place finish at the 2011 Giro, third at the Tour a year later, and then a Giro victory in 2013.
With Froome and former winner Alberto Contador crashing out of this Tour in the first 10 days and Movistar climber Nairo Quintana skipping the race altogether, having won May’s Giro, nothing could be more logical than seeing Nibali standing atop the winner’s podium.
The Italian simply performed consistently, yet not dramatically, better than his competition, never losing a single second on any stage to any of his overall rivals. He has gradually pulled away from the field rather than blitzing them in a single demonstration of his superiority.
“Every day I’ve taken a few seconds, 20 seconds here, 30 seconds there, maybe a minute and that’s been important in building my lead,” he said.
It has made Nibali perhaps the most credible Tour winner since the darkest days of doping.
But what now remains to be seen is whether or not “The Shark” will have the same bite in 12 months’ time, when Froome, Contador and Quintana will all be lining up to knock him from his perch, not to mention improving young French guns such as Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet.