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Swimming with the sharks: Vincenzo Nibali profile

In-depth
5 Mar 2019
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This feature was originally published in Issue 84 of Cyclist magazine

Words Mark Bailey Photography Chris Blott

Long before Vincenzo Nibali won four Grand Tours and became known around the world as the ‘Shark of Messina’, his father Salvatore sliced his bike in half with a hacksaw.

‘It is a true story,’ confesses the Italian, his gaunt cheeks blushing.

‘My results at school were not good and my dad said, “It is important you do well – not just with your work but also your behaviour.

‘“If you don’t respect the rules, I will cut your bike in half.”

‘I thought it wasn’t true, but when a notice from my school arrived saying that my behaviour had not been good, he cut my bike in two.’

The Nibalis are from Messina in Sicily, where your word is your honour and family reputation is sacrosanct.

‘After one month my school results had quickly improved,’ acknowledges Nibali.

So his father – nicknamed ‘Lupo’ (Wolf) for his fierce independence – welded his son’s bike back together. But the incident taught the young Vincenzo the value of hard work, pride and commitment: qualities that have since driven him to more than 50 professional victories.

Nibali is one of only seven cyclists in history to have won all three Grand Tours.

As a young boy, Vincenzo also discovered the rewards of resilience. He has an old photo of himself, aged 10, being towed up the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna by a rope attached from his bike to the car of his mother Giovanna.

‘I was riding with my dad, who also liked cycling, and a group of amateurs from Messina to the top of Etna.

‘It was the first time I had done a really long climb. Etna is a 25km climb and I was only a boy.

‘Near the top, I just died. So they got rope from the car to pull me.

‘I had to get to the top. I was young but not so strong.’

Nibali credits his career success to the flinty spirit he acquired growing up in Sicily. The evocative title of his 2016 autobiography is Di Furore e Lealtà (Of Fury And Loyalty).

‘Fury because you always need desire and a hard mentality during the race – not just good tactics but also heart,’ he says.

‘And loyalty because I didn’t arrive at the top of my sport alone: family, teammates and friends shared this journey to help me succeed.’

Racing spirit

The 34-year-old lives in Lugano, Switzerland, with wife Rachele and daughter Emma, but we meet at the World Travel Market in London, where Nibali has been fulfilling media duties for the government that sponsors his Bahrain-Merida team.

The country’s Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa is a keen cyclist and triathlete.

‘When I visit Bahrain I like to do go-karting on the Formula 1 track, which is a lot of fun,’ says Nibali, whose words are being translated by his agent Alex Carrera.

‘I did the Formula 1 circuit on my bike as well but the go-karting was the best.

‘I only went for a photoshoot but every time I visit Bahrain I do it again.’

Nibali’s passion for car racing (he has also thrashed a Porsche 911 around the Mugello circuit in Tuscany) almost becomes a problem.

There is a driving simulator at the Bahrain travel stand today and we have some difficulty prising Nibali away to do our photoshoot. A quick spin turns into half an hour, before eventually he is dragged away.

Dressed in jeans and a smart blue jacket, Nibali exudes a shy composure, but on his bike he is a fearsome competitor, sharpened by animal instinct and raw courage.

This gritty spirit has been evident throughout his cycling career, from his courageous attacks and brutal training sessions (which he describes as ‘a fight against myself’) to his niggly conflicts (at the 2015 Tour, Chris Froome accused him of unsportsmanlike behaviour after the Italian attacked when he had a stone stuck in his brake callipers) and sporadic blanking of the media.

His passion for cycling actually began with a geeky obsession over kit.

As a child, he was constantly pining for new handlebars and tweaking his saddle position. His father would get him to do chores in return for new bike parts.

‘At first I mostly liked the mechanics of the bike,’ he reveals.

‘I am one of those riders who can take a bike apart and remove all the components and put them back together again, similar to a pro mechanic.’

This fascination has never left him.

When I later ask him what changes he would introduce to professional cycling, he says, ‘If I could change one thing it would be to relax the rules of bike design for time records such as the Hour.

‘Now it is not legal. Chris Boardman was the last rider to use whatever he wanted.

‘But I would love to use all this new technology.’

Nibali’s childhood passion for tech soon morphed into a hunger for racing.

‘I didn’t like football or other sports, but cycling gives young children the opportunity to explore their world.

‘It gives you freedom. In my first years as a rider, there were not many competitions so I had to travel hundreds of kilometres from Messina [on the north coast] to Syracuse [in the south] to race.

‘There were so many people and bags in the car – me, my brother [Antonio, who also rides for Bahrain-Merida], father and mother – it took us hours just to get to the start.’

Grand master

Aged 16, Nibali moved to Tuscany to train with the GS Mastromarco team under the leadership of directeur sportif Carlo Franceschi, who taught him about independence and discipline.

‘I was very young but I never thought of it as being difficult to move away from home because I wanted it so much.

‘I just wanted to be a pro rider. That was my goal.

‘I moved alone to Tuscany, but the team became like a second family because I was with them for many months and just returned home in the holidays.’

After signing his first professional contract with Fasso Bortolo in 2005, Nibali raced for Liquigas from 2006-2012, claiming the Vuelta a España in 2010, aged just 25.

‘I remember the next-to-last stage, to the summit of Bola del Mundo [near Madrid]. I felt very, very strong, but I didn’t know if I could beat the climbers.

‘I had only 30 seconds over my rivals, so I followed the wheel of Ezequiel Mosquera [who finished second overall] and concentrated only on this.

‘I had no pressure from the team and felt completely free to do my best. And the best for me was first.’

Nibali’s most successful spell came between 2013 and 2016 during his time at Astana, with whom he won the Giro di Lombardia in 2015, the Tour of Oman in 2016, the Giro d’Italia in 2013 and 2016 and the Tour de France in 2014.

‘I remember after the first Giro win I had two parties, one in Tuscany with friends who lived nearby and a second one in Sicily with my family and local people who have known me since I was a baby,’ he says.

‘Winning the Giro is very special for an Italian.’

Nibali’s Tour de France glory came in 2014, after he had slashed his race weight to 64kg and his body fat to 6.1%.

It was a grim task achieved by weighing his pasta and snacking on dried apricots.

‘Nobody sees me when I am eating pasta for breakfast on hard training camps,’ he says.

‘I suffered during the first months of the season, but everything went perfectly in the second part of June and I was in really good condition. I won in Sheffield at the start [Stage 2] and the British fans were incredible.

‘I remember that when I finished the stage in Yorkshire it was the same sensation as when you go to the discotheque.

‘When you leave the disco at night, the buzz and the feeling stays with you. It was the same after this stage.

‘It was the first time in my life I had a disco sensation at a bike race.’

More to come

Nibali has experienced mixed fortunes in recent years, at least by his own high standards.

He won the Giro di Lombardia for a second time in 2017 and secured podium finishes at the Giro and Vuelta in 2017, but another Grand Tour victory has eluded him.

His 2018 season combined the joy of winning Milan-San Remo after a solo attack on the Poggio and the pain of crashing out of the Tour de France.

‘It was a big emotion to win Milan-San Remo,’ he says.

‘You don’t expect anything at those races, but that just makes the satisfaction bigger. I was planning to help another leader, Sonny Colbrelli, but when the chance came I took it.

‘I was riding alone and maybe I pushed too much. But then I calmed down and just made it to the finish before the sprinters.’

At the Tour, Nibali was knocked off his bike on Alpe d’Huez by a spectator’s stray camera strap, leaving him with a broken vertebra.

His team is considering legal action against the Tour organiser, ASO, with the presence of police motorbikes, encroaching fans and smoke from flares all contributing to the chaos.

‘There were too many people around and it got complicated,’ Nibali says.

‘I remember seeing police motorbikes ahead and I could see Chris Froome so I tried to follow him.

‘There was one moto near Romain Bardet, one with Chris Froome, and then me and two other riders, Tom Dumoulin and Geraint Thomas, were 25 metres behind.

‘At the point where we crashed the space became too small and the fans and photographers were too close.

‘Something took my bike and I found myself on the floor. I knew straight away it was not good.

‘But you see things like this all the time – fans wave flags and at the last second lift them up. It is so dangerous.’

In an era of acute specialisation in the pro peloton, Nibali earns respect for competing in prestigious one-day races as well as Grand Tours.

‘I think it is better for cycling and more beautiful for cycling if we all do this,’ he says.

‘My philosophy is to try to win every race. But of course this is my mentality. I cannot talk about other riders.’

Nibali also believes it is his duty to light up races with attacks. In his autobiography, he described Froome’s riding style as ‘robotico’.

‘I am impulsive in life and I use this same instinct when I race,’ he says. ‘I understand that during the race there will be opportunities to attack.

‘Before the race I discuss a plan with my sports director but what happens during the race is up to me.

‘I like it when I feel in my body and in my head that I can attack. I am an instinctive rider. If you don’t try, for sure you don’t win.’

Nibali remains hungry for more Grand Tour success in 2019. He is intrigued by the limited time-trials at the Tour de France and the killer climbs of the Giro.

‘They are beautiful races and I would love to do the Giro and the Tour – possibly both – but that is a difficult challenge. Very difficult.

‘When I look further ahead, my minimum target is two big wins, but three would be good.

‘For me, the World Championships is the big one I want to win.

‘Also Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Olympic Games. Those are the three.

‘But I don’t want to think about my place in cycling history yet.

‘When I finish I will know my place. For now, I just want to win.’

For more information on Bahrain visit bahrain.com


Grand designs

The life and rides of Vincenzo Nibali

1984: Vincenzo Nibali is born on 14th November 1984 in Messina, Sicily.

2000: Moves to Tuscany, aged 16, to join the GS Mastromarco team. Two years later he wins the Italian junior Road Race title.

2006: After signing his first pro contract with Fasso Bortolo in 2005, Nibali joins Liquigas in 2006 and wins the GP Ouest-France.

2010: Wins the Vuelta a España, aged just 25, beating Spaniard Ezequiel Mosquera into second place.

2013: Achieves his first Giro d’Italia triumph, winning three stages along the way.

2014: Claims the Tour de France with four stage victories and a winning margin of seven minutes and 39 seconds.

2016: The Sicilian wins his second Giro d’Italia but crashes out of the Olympic Road Race, fracturing his collarbone.

2017: Wins the Giro di Lombardia for the second time (his first came in 2015). Places third in the Giro and second in the Vuelta.

2018: Becomes the first Italian to win Milan-San Remo since Filippo Pozzato in 2006.

 Nibali on…

…Making it as a pro

‘What mattered to me at first wasn’t success, but progress. It is more important that season by season your level improves.

‘In the juniors I was not a world champion – I came 30th. But at under-23 level my season improved.

‘This is the most important thing for young guys.’

…Memorabilia

‘Most of my jerseys are in picture frames in my home.

‘I gave jerseys from the 2014 Tour de France to people who are most important to me, like my mum.

‘I also gave one to the mother of Marco Pantani as a thank you for one of his that she gave to me.’

…Training

‘For a champion there are many things behind the results, from the staff to your teammates to your family.

‘I go on many training camps and I miss my family.

‘Sometimes I hardly see my daughter for months and it is not easy.’

…Team bonding

‘When we come together at the start of the season we do things like football, basketball or volleyball to relax and get to know each other.

‘Later we tend to split into groups for the big tour riders, Classics riders and sprinters, so it is good to spend time as a whole team.’

… Grand Tours

‘The Tour is the most important race because it is the most difficult and most popular.

‘But the Giro d’Italia is the most beautiful to me, as an Italian.

‘Both the Tour and the Giro in 2019 look difficult: they start very hard and stay tough all the way through.’