With his determined performance on the Bola del Mundo, Vincenzo Nibali is poised to be come the first Italian winner of the Vuelta a Espana in 20 years. The Liquigas-Doimo rider didn't crack despite relentless pressure from Spaniard Ezequiel Mosquera on the final climb to Bola del Mundo, and is now 85km away from bringing home his first Grand Tour win tomorrow.
"I still can't believe that I'm winning the Vuelta," Nibali said following Saturday's stage. "This is a very important victory. I'm entering the small circle of the winners of the Grand Tours. This is childhood dream come true. I've exchanged some messages with Ivan Basso in the past few days. He told me to stay calm because he was seeing on TV that I was pedalling well. In fact, everything was going exactly as I wanted."
While Nibali didn't win any stages of the Vuelta, he came second to Igor Anton at Valdepeñas de Jaen and to Ezequiel Mosquera at Bola del Mundo.
"I didn't know anything about the course of the Vuelta when I came to Sevilla," Nibali admitted. "The Spanish riders have been really strong here and they've made my life complicated. Today, I knew the final three kilometres were the most difficult ones, I had seen it my director's computer this morning.
"When Mosquera accelerated the first time, I set my pace as steady as I could, I also kept some strength for the finale and that's why I never lost control of the situation and I even managed to come across to him and save my red jersey."
"Vincenzo has demonstrated today that he's a great champion," said his team manager Roberto Amadio. Nibali rode with maturity beyond his 25 years, riding his own tempo as Mosquera attacked him on the steep sections in the final kilometres of Saturday's penultimate stage. He lost over 20 seconds at one point, but clawed his way back as the grade leveled out and in doing so brought himself to the brink of stardom.
"This is actually the champion that Italian cycling was waiting for," said Amadio. "At the age of 25, Nibali has claimed his first Grand Tour. That crowns his fabulous 2010 season that started with an overall victory at the Tour of San Luis in Argentina in January. But he's had a totally different program than what he actually planned at the beginning of the year."
Nibali was to focus on the Tour de France, but was called up at the last minute to replace his teammate Franco Pellizotti at the Giro d'Italia, a race he led for three days and finished in third place overall, all the while giving a valuable contributions to the win of his captain Ivan Basso and taking one stage win.
Any rider's ultimate goal is the Tour de France, but Nibali said he isn't sure of his future for the Grand Tours. "At the Tour de France, there is Alberto Contador. He's the number one rider for stage races, he has won them all. It's very difficult to envisage beating him but hopefully one day I'll be able to fight side by side with him. I'm not sure if I'll do Giro-Tour or Giro-Vuelta next year."
Logically, Italian fans, organisers and media will ask him to repeat at the Giro what he has achieved at the Vuelta. That would be a natural step towards his ultimate dream to fight for victory at the Tour de France.