The End Of An Era: GCN Sits Down With Vincenzo Nibali
The 2022 road racing season will not only be remembered as one of the most thrilling in recent memory, thanks in large part to the sport’s young superstars, but also as the year that many veterans of the game finally chose to hang up their wheels. Alejandro Valverde, Philippe Gilbert and Richie Porte all rode their final seasons this year, but if there’s one name amongst 2022’s list of retirees that will be sorely missed above all, and not just by Italian cycling fans, then it’s Vincenzo Nibali - the ‘Shark of Messina’. We sat down with Nibali recently to discuss his storied career; his highlights, his lowlights and the moments in between…
Nibali spent much of the last 10 years at the very top of the sport. Photo: © Velo Collection/Getty Images.
Vincenzo Nibali, who was born on the Italian island of Sicily in 1984, won many of the world’s most prestigious races during his illustrious, 18-year career. These victories weren’t just restricted to one kind of race, Nibali won here, there and everywhere. Grand Tours, Monuments, week-long stage races, one-day semi-Classics, nothing escaped the jaws of the Shark. The jewels on his glittering palmares, though, are undoubtedly his victories in the 2014 Tour de France, 2013 and 2016 Giro d’Italia, 2010 Vuelta a España, 2015 and 2017 Il Lombardia and 2018 Milano-Sanremo.
As a rider who has won almost everything there is to win in the sport, and one who can count no fewer than 52 professional victories on his palmares, you’d think that Nibali would struggle to choose his favourite. When asked, however, the Italian answered with hardly a moment of hesitation, “My first Giro d’Italia.” At 28-years-old, Nibali arrived at the 2013 Giro as a Grand Tour winner already having won the 2010 Vuelta. It was this maiden win in his home Grand Tour, however, which arguably set him on the path towards legend.
Nibali announced himself as one of the sport’s best three-week racers with his win in the 2013 Giro. Photo: © Velo Collection/Getty Images.
One race that eluded Nibali during his long career was Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the oldest of cycling’s five Monuments and a race nicknamed ‘La Doyenne’, or ‘The Old Lady’. This one-day race in Belgium was in fact the Italian’s favourite race to ride, despite being one of the few that he never won. “I think I had the highest number of appearances at Il Lombardia and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. In fact, I liked Liège very much and I’m a little sorry for not winning it, I came very close [Nibali finished 2nd in the 2012 edition] but that’s okay, you also need to know how to be satisfied in life.”
The fact that Nibali was left empty-handed in his favourite race, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, just goes to show how strong the many rivals that he met during his career really were. Pinning down the Italian’s ‘ultimate’ rival is tricky, he clashed with dozens of the world’s best during the span of his 18-year career, but in his eyes there were three. “There were several [big rivals]. For stage races they were without a doubt Chris Froome and Alberto Contador. In the one-day races it was surely [Alejandro] Valverde who took the stage the most.”
Froome, Nibali and Contador put on some of the best stage racing shows of the last decade. Photo: © Velo Collection/Getty Images.
Fans often remember riders’ careers based on the clashes they had with their rivals, but Nibali will remember large parts of his based on the moments he shared with some of his teammates, Alessandro Vanotti in particular. “I spent most of my career almost always with the same roommate, Alessandro Vanotti [the pair rode at Liquigas and Astana together between 2007 and 2016]. He was very calm, there was always a lot of quiet, sometimes I arrived very late in my room because I had done a thousand things between interviews and award ceremonies and when I entered I found everything already settled.”
Vanotti’s calming influence no doubt tempered the Shark’s bite away from races, but during them he more than played his part leading Nibali to his next victim. He was instrumental in Nibali’s 2013 Giro victory, not to mention his wins in the 2014 Tour de France, 2015 Il Lombardia and 2013 Tirreno-Adriatico. All told, he played a key role in helping Nibali to establish himself as not only the greatest Italian cyclist of the modern era, but one of the best of all time too.
Nibali’s first Giro win may have been his favourite, but it’ll be his 2014 Tour win which will be remembered by most. Photo: © Velo Collection/Getty Images.
Nibali’s retirement has opened up a power vacuum that many will be hoping that they can fill. The legend himself struggles to see who could fill his shoes, however. “Right now, for stage races, I don’t see any Italian riders up to par, maybe they can be built physically and mentally in the future, but now - I’m sorry to say - you have to wait a bit.” While the Italian men’s scene may be struggling with regards to stage racing, there is promise amongst those who target the sport’s one-day races and Monuments.
“There are several Italians who can still grow and maybe win a Monument. First of all [Filippo] Ganna, he has won practically everything on the track, now he should concentrate more on the Monuments. [Andrea] Bagioli could make a few more leaps and [Samuele] Battistella is growing too. He hasn’t won yet but he has that grit, ‘La Cazzimma’ as they say in Neapolitan! [Giulio] Ciccone is in a phase that needs to materialise a little. They are all there, but that little extra is needed to make a difference.”
Nibali and Ciccone were teammates at Trek-Segafredo between 2020 and 2021. Photo: © Velo Collection/Getty Images.
As is the case with every pro racer - past, present and even future - Nibali will retire at the end of 2022 with some regrets. He may have won all three Grand Tours and two of the sport’s five Monuments, but two titles proved elusive - the Olympic title and the World title. When asked what were his biggest regrets, Nibali said, “The Rio 2016 Olympics, and also the 2013 World Championships in Florence. I arrived at both of these races in amazing shape, but in Florence it was a difficult day with a very slippery surface, while in Rio we all know how it went [Nibali crashed out of medal contention in the dying moments of the race].”
In the 18 years he spent in the midst of the pro peloton, Nibali represented five different teams. His career blossomed at Liquigas, but it was at Astana where he took the biggest of his career wins. Of all the teams he has represented, though, he struggles to choose a favourite, understandably. When it comes to choosing his favourite kit, however, things are a little more clear. “To be honest, there is not one that I prefer the most, but perhaps the Astana one was the one that I liked a little more than others.”
Nibali bowed out at one of his favourite races, Il Lombardia, and alongside one of his fiercest rivals, Valverde. Photo: © Velo Collection/Getty Images.
Astana’s sky-blue jersey isn’t the one that Nibali donned for the majority of his career, that honours goes to Liquigas’ green-and-white number which he wore for seven seasons between 2006 and 2012. That said, it’s the blue of Astana that we’ll be unable to rid from our minds when we reflect upon Nibali’s long and storied career. It seems fitting, then, that the 38-year-old chose to retire this year after one final season with Astana. Next year will usher in a new era, no doubt, but one ultimately devoid of the Shark and all of the power, poise and panache that he brought to bike racing over the best part of the last two decades.