For three weeks, ‘tranquillo’ had been the byword for Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) at the Giro d’Italia, but the ice broke as he waited to mount the podium in Brescia’s Piazza della Loggia after the final stage.
Clinical on the bike and measured in his declarations since the race began in Naples, Nibali finally abandoned himself to the magnitude of his achievement. “It’s really stupendous, unimaginable,” he said, with tears welling in his eyes. “It’s very emotional. It’s going to take a few days for me to realise what I’ve done.”
RAI television delighted in replaying images of Nibali blinking away the tears as he sang the Italian national anthem atop the podium and when the Giro winner arrived for his post-race press conference an hour later, he was asked if he now felt himself the leader of a new era in Italian cycling.
“Yes, but there are a lot of other young riders coming up with a strong set of ethics too, and we can feel proud about that,” said Nibali.
Since Marco Pantani’s death in 2004, a nation has turned its lonely eyes to a litany of riders in search of a replacement, but the spectre of doping has continued to cast a pall over Italian cycling in the past decade, an era that saw such unsavoury Giro protagonists as Ivan Basso, Danilo Di Luca (a repeat offender at this Giro) and Riccardo Riccò. The subtext did not need to be explained when Nibali was asked if the Italian public had warmed to him because he was “different to the others.”
“I’ve always been myself, and I’ve looked to better myself as a rider and a man over the years too,” Nibali said diplomatically. “But maybe what you’re saying could also have an influence.”
Nibali was joined on the podium in Brescia by his entire Astana team, including general manager Alexandre Vinokourov, who was banned for blood doping as a rider, and team manager Giuseppe Martinelli, who was Pantani’s former directeur sportif.
“Martinelli was the one who really wanted me at Astana,” Nibali said. “He is very tranquillo and he manages races without creating any pressure. It’s like having one of my old directeurs sportifs from when I was a young rider in the team car.”
Before leaving Liquigas (now Cannondale) for Astana during the off-season, Nibali had unsuccessfully tried to persuade team preparatore Paolo Slongo to make the move with him, before apparently opting to coach himself with guidance from Martinelli and his new squad.
“I’m not very methodical. I keep my training data but I don’t analyse everything,” Nibali said of his training regimen at Astana. “I think I’ve worked well day by day, and when I don’t feel good, I train less. At this Giro I’ve just thought of getting through it day by day.”
As the days have passed at the Giro, Nibali’s position looked increasingly impregnable and there was an inevitability about the manner in which he sealed his final overall victory in the Polsa time trial and the snowy summit finish at Tre Cime di Lavaredo. The off days, such as there were any, were confined to the Giro’s frantic opening salvoes in southern Italy.
“I suffered a bit with allergies in those early stages and I wasn’t exactly feeling my best at Marina di Ascea [on stage three] especially, even though I was at the front in the end,” he said. “But I was always supported by my teammates and that meant that I didn’t have any moments of crisis.”
The first major turning point of the Giro arrived with the rain on the road to Pescara on stage 7, when Bradley Wiggins lost time in a crash on the rain-soaked descent of San Silvestro and the scales began to tip in Nibali’s favour.
“The rain helped me and let’s say that I took just the right amount of risks,” Nibali smiled. “I fell twice myself on the stage to Pescara and that was enough for me.”
By the time the Giro reached its highest mountains in the third week, Wiggins had already laid down arms, and Nibali instead shared the spotlight with the extreme weather conditions, which he believes added to the impact of his win.
“I think we’ve transmitted some special emotions to the public during this Giro, especially in these last stages in the snow, at Tre Cime di Lavaredo and on the Galibier,” Nibali said. “The people like to see something heroic and that’s why they’ve been coming out to the roadsides to support us.”