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Vincenzo Nibali was only 5 years old the last time an Italian won the Vuelta a España (Marco Giovannetti in 1990). On Saturday, the 25-year-old rode with the coolness of an experienced veteran to fend off last-gasp attacks on the Bola del Mundo summit, all but but securing his first grand-tour victory of his young, but ever promising career.
Nibali didn’t panic when Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo Galicia) opened up an 18-second gap on the extremely steep ascent and patiently reeled him in on the final kilometer to carry a 41-second grip on the red jersey going into Sunday’s finale into Madrid.
“To bring the red jersey back to Italy after 20 years is very important. The Spanish riders were very strong in this Vuelta, from the first day to the last,” Nibali said. “It was very difficult to win this Vuelta.”
“The Shark of Messina” wasn’t even supposed to race the Vuelta this year. His plan for the season was to improve on his seventh place in last year’s Tour de France, but he got a call 10 days before the start of the Giro d’Italia to replace Franco Pellizotti, who ran afoul of the UCI’s biological passport.
Much like Alberto Contador in 2008, when came off the beach with a final-hour invitation to race and win the Giro, Nibali returned from Sicily and promptly earned his first grand-tour podium with third riding in support of Liquigas teammate and eventual winner Ivan Basso.
This Vuelta wasn’t in the plan either, but he skipped the Tour de France in July and began thinking about the world championships. The road to Melbourne went through Sevilla and Nibali had his eye on the GC from day one. Supported by a strong Liquigas team, Nibali stayed close throughout all the defining moments of the Vuelta, taking the leader’s jersey only to lose it to Joaquim Rodríguez on Cotobello.
“I didn’t know anything about this Vuelta when it started, but I knew I wanted to do well,” he said. “The worst day was when I lost 39 seconds to Joaquim with Cotobello.”
Nibali roared back into the leader’s jersey Wednesday thanks to his superior time trialing skills against the skinny mountain goats. When Mosquera clawed to within 38 seconds, Nibali proved he had the killer instinct and took back 12 seconds into Toledo on Friday to give him a 50-second cushion going into Saturday’s showdown.
The Xacobeo Galicia rider dropped the hammer en route to the Bola del Mundo summit and looked to have Nibali briefly on the ropes. But Nibali proved he has toughness to match his huge engine and fought through ramps as steep as 20 percent — as well as through a sea of very biased Spanish fans — to keep Mosquera on a short leash.
He pulled up alongside his Spanish nemesis in the closing meters and the pair coasted across the line together. Mosquera got his elusive stage victory and podium spot, and Nibali secured an impressive overall victory.
“I knew the most difficult part of the stage was the last 3km. They were very steep. When Mosquera attacked on the last part, I thought to trying to keep as steady as possible,” Nibali explained. “I knew I had a margin so I wanted to play with 10-15 seconds. I wanted to keep him within vision and not lose too much.”
With Sunday’s victory lap in Madrid, Nibali will be crowned winner of what many say has been the most dynamic and hotly contested Vuelta in years.
Nibali didn’t win a stage, but he didn’t have to. He could let Mosquera win Saturday because he had the overall in the bag. Such is the making of Italy’s newest star.
“I still don’t know how this will change my life. For sure, it’s a very important victory for me,” Nibali said. “To win a grand tour is something I dreamed about since I was a little boy.”
Nearly a dozen Italian journalists showed up in Madrid to chronicle Nibali’s coronation. Since turning pro in 2006, he’s shown steady progress in grand tours. Nibali has never finished worse than 20 in six grand-tour appearances.
Liquigas scored its second grand-tour victory on the 2010 season and Nibali admitted he was already looking ahead to next season. A Giro-Tour double is unlikely, because the Tour remains the challenge for the young Italian. His trajectory is sure to cross with Contador’s.
“For the Italian, the Giro is the maximum, just like the Vuelta is for a Spaniard. For a cyclist, to win the Tour is the maximum,” said Nibali. “Alberto Contador is the No. 1 of the grand-tour riders. Every grand tour he starts, he wins. It would be very difficult to try to beat him. If I continue to progress, I believe it’s possible to try to fight him 100 percent.”
Nibali says this Vuelta victory won’t change him, though it’s likely to making a much richer young man. He remains with Liquigas next season, where he and Ivan Basso will form a formidable duo.
“Nibali is the same. What I have changed in the past few years was when I made the seventh place at the Tour. Then I was third in the Giro, and I began to believe I can do well in grand tours,” he said. “The results are getting better, now with this victory in the Vuelta, but the person behind the cycling remains the same.”