Tuesday 12 December 2017

Shark of Messina emulates Pirate hero to join grand tour immortals

Thirteen years ago, Vincenzo Nibali packed his bags and left his home in Sicily to start the journey that led him to a triumphant ride on the Champs Elysees yesterday as Tour de France champion.

The 29-year-old Italian, as soft-spoken in life as he is aggressive on the bike, joined Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault, Alberto Contador and his compatriot Felice Gimondi as winners of all three grands tours.

The son of Giovanna and Salvatore, who own a movie rental shop, Nibali quickly realised riding his bike around the local streets would not be enough to emulate Gimondi.

In a region where family ties are like glue, leaving home could have been a heart-breaking move, but Nibali learned to love his independence after moving to Tuscany.

The chisel-featured Nibali is an attacker. In 2012, he was the only rider to attack a dominant Team Sky in the mountains.

He never managed to break the British outfit's stranglehold on the race, but that is how Nibali rides.

On this year's Tour, he took the yellow jersey in the second stage after a late attack caught his rivals cold in Sheffield. This time, he was not caught.

Instead of playing it conservatively, Nibali was on the attack on all terrains, distancing Contador in the pouring rain on the treacherous cobbled stage to Arenberg as Britain's defending champion Chris Froome crashed out.

After Contador was also forced out following a crash on stage 10, the Astana rider's lead was not to be threatened, yet the 'Shark of Messina' attacked again in the mountains, taking his fourth stage win at the top of Hautacam, a mystic pass draped in eerie fog.

In a sport marred by doping scandals, however, myth has often been mixed with disenchantment. Nibali is no exception to the habit of making Tour de France champions prime suspects.

Nibali, the first Italian to win the Tour since the late Marco Pantani in 1998, inevitably had to answer doping-related questions as comparisons were drawn with the disgraced rider known as 'the Pirate'.

He will visit Pantani's mother to give her one of his yellow jerseys because he admired her son. "I loved his bravery," he said.

Nibali chose to leave his Liquigas team to work at Astana with manager Alexandre Vinokourov, who served a two-year ban for blood doping on the 2007 Tour.

Nibali did not wait to be questioned on the Tour to speak out against doping. Eight years ago, he said that dopers should be locked up and this year, after former team-mate Danilo Di Luca said that it was impossible to win a grand tour without doping, he commented: "I can only think that he has become a bit brain-damaged."

On Saturday, Nibali was questioned again. "A lot of progress has been made and we can see the results now," he said. "If there had not been all these controls, targeted controls, the biological passport, maybe I would not be here."

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