The Vuelta a España has a new boss. Only 24 hours after bewailing the dramatic loss of Igor Anton (Euskaltel) in a nasty crash due to a piece of wood on the road, Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Doimo) has emerged as the strongest rider in the way he dominated the group of the favourites.
After brilliant performances in three Grand Tours, Nibali, known as "the shark from the strait", has had his nickname translated across Europe: "le requin du détroit" in France, "El Tiburon del destrecho" as well as the usual "lo squallo dello stretto" in Italy.
The shark seems t prepared to swallow all the smaller fish of the Vuelta. Nibali wasn't worried when Ezequiel Mosquera went away in an attack on stage 15, countering a short-lived attack by Carlos Sastre (Cervélo TestTeam), who for a moment, showed the glimmer of his old Vuelta form. Sastre's attack succeeded only in dropping Cervélo teammate Xavier Tondo from the group of the favourites on the way up to the mythical finish of the Lagos de Covadonga.
"When Sastre attacked, Roman (Kreuziger) put in the maximum effort at the right time," said Nibali. "He's been brilliant. I have never been scared of Mosquera. Look, he has done five kilometres of climbing flat out, and what did that benefit him? 11 seconds - that's no big deal for me. I'm serene and happy to have passed one more day with no problem."
"This is not the first time I'm leading a big race, but this time I strongly hope to keep the jersey until the end," said Nibali, who is based in Tuscany, the region of Italy where he lost the pink jersey in the Giro d'Italia this year.
"There are many more stages to come at the Vuelta," he said. "I want to live it day by day. I bet tomorrow's stage will be quite similar to today's. There are many more climbs, but I'm very confident in the work of my team. I want to arrive at the time trial with about the same advantage that I have now."
Nibali has the reputation of being a much better time triallist than his Spanish rivals. The 25-year-old, who shares a November 14th birthday with Bernard Hinault, is the star in the making awaited by the Italian cycling community. His teammate from Liquigas-Doimo, Ivan Basso, won the Giro earlier this year, but this is the only big achievement from the top Italians since the end of 2008, when Alessandro Ballan became the world champion and Damiano Cunego won the Tour of Lombardy. Nibali is the new bright star on the horizon for a country that has been accustomed to achieving great results over the past 20 years.
Major Italian media have made their way to Spain to watch "the shark" put himself in, and they hope also keep, the red jersey.
The last Italian winner of the Vuelta was Marco Giovanetti back in 1991.