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SANREMO, Italy (VN) — Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) put Italian fans at Milano-Sanremo into a frenzy with a solo attack on the Poggio and had enough power to hold it to the Via Roma. He became the first Italian to win the race in 12 years, and did so in style.
Nibali held 10 seconds on the top of the Poggio climb with 5.4 kilometers to race in the 294-kilometer Italian Monument and though the gap was closing, he had enough to celebrate ahead of the line.
“I knew I had time to enjoy it,” Nibali said. “I remember… I will remember it forever because it was a very beautiful and emotional race for me.”
Nibali made his name in stage races winning first the Vuelta a España, then the Giro d’Italia, and the Tour de France. But he competes in one-day races when other grand tour stars cannot. He came close in Liège-Bastogne-Liège before and in 2012, placed third in Milano-Sanremo. And he counts two titles in the other Italian monument, Il Lombardia.
“It’s hard to say if it’s the Giro d’Italia or Lombardia or Sanremo that counts more,” Nibali said. “I can’t put one over the other.”
The Sicilian, known as ‘The Shark’, was the first Italian to celebrate in the seaside town since Filippo Pozzato won in 2006. He was not expected to do so, bookmakers gave the odds to Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), last year’s winner Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) and sprinters like 2016 victor Arnaud Démare (FDJ).
After the race, Sagan could only applaud Nibali’s bold move, saying, “He’s got balls.”
“When I start races, I race to win,” Nibali added. “I came here to Milano-Sanremo knowing I had great condition. Lombardia is great, and when I win it’s special.
“Those one-day races are hard. I thought Milano-Sanremo maybe was out of my reach, not so adapted to my characteristics, I tried in the past on the Poggio, but always finding faster riders. But I had a podium in the past, so I knew I could do something, that gave me hope.”
Bahrain-Merida, the team Nibali helped start in 2017, began the race with Sonny Colbrelli as its sprint captain. Nibali needed to block potential attackers like Sagan, Kwiatkowski, Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), or Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors). Nothing seemed to be happening in the group as it sped along the coast and it appeared a big sprinter could celebrate in Sanremo.
“We are very good friends, I said to Peter Sagan, what are you doing? Waiting for the sprint?” continued Nibali. “He didn’t know how to respond and it stopped there. It was a trick question, because my role at that time was to be a stopper for Colbrelli and not an attacker.”
Nibali followed a move by Krists Neilands (Israel Cycling Academy) on the Poggio. Neilands asked him to help pull, but Nibali hesitated. When he saw the gap that they had, he took his turn and then attacked.
“When I saw we had 20 or so seconds, on the last part of the Poggio, where the gradient was harder, I decided to go hard,” Nibali explained. “I was free, strong and holding it as far as I could. The last kilometers were endless — just suffering.”
Nibali will take this same enthusiasm to the Tour of Flanders later this month. He wants to try the cobblestones with the Tour de France featuring a cobbled stage in 2018. In the 2014 Tour, on the cobbled Roubaix stage, Nibali made huge gains for his eventual overall title.
“Flanders is another monument, one I’ve never raced,” Nibali said. “I want to go there and learn and get the flavor. I always saw it on TV and I wanted to race.”