Vincenzo Nibali pulled on the maglia rosa in Cuneo, becoming the new leader of the Giro d'Italia after its first day on home soil. It puts a huge responsibility on the 25-year-old's shoulders, yet it will be the expectations of the tifosi that will probably be the most testing task for the young Sicilian.
Italian cycling has been hit by a long series of doping scandals in the last 15 years, most recently involving Giro d'Italia contenders such as Ivan Basso and Danilo Di Luca. The usually passionate tifosi have grown tired and disenchanted with cycling but now hope that Nibali can emerge as the future star of Italian stage racing.
Nibali was shaking with emotion as he pulled on the pink jersey and took several deep breaths before going on live television to face questions. He grew up watching the Giro d'Italia in Messina, Sicily, and knows how much the maglia rosa means to Italian cycling fans.
"This is a dream come true. I want to dedicate it to all the team because we all went really well. I didn't think we'd get the jersey but now that I've pulled it on, I've still got goose bumps," Nibali said.
"I know that they're already celebrating at home in Sicily. They've been waiting for a long time for a pink jersey. But I'm not going to get carried away. The last week of the Giro is very difficult and so it will be hard to keep the jersey, but who knows? Basso is also well placed overall and we've gained a lot of time on the others like Evans, Vino, Scarponi and the others."
"I'd be crazy to throw it all away"
Nibali was only called up for the Liquigas-Doimo squad after Franco Pellizotti was pulled from the team due to his UCI Biological Passport problems. Nibali was already on holiday at home in Sicily, enjoying some time in the sun, when he got the call asking if he would replace Pellizotti.
Last year Amore e Vita team owner Ivano Fanini accused him and Pellizotti of working with Dr. Ferrari before the Tour de France. In the post-race press conference, Nibali refused to talk about Pellizotti's problems but in an interview in the La Repubblica newspaper today, Nibali insisted he would never do anything to betray his strong family values. If that is true, he could indeed be the saviour of Italian cycling.
"I have to thank the Liquigas team for giving me the chance to ride the Giro. If I'd refused their call I wouldn't have the jersey now," he said.
"Regarding Pellizotti, the team doctor Roberto Corsetti and the specialist Banfi have already given their explanations, so I don't think I have to add anything.
"I don't know what's going to happen to Italian cycling but I know what I'm going to do," he told La Repubblica. "I've made huge sacrifices in my life to be a professional and I'd be crazy to throw it all away for something stupid. I know what I've sacrificed leaving Sicily as a kid. And I also know the strict education my father gave me. I'd feel terrible if I betrayed my father and I could never go home.
"I don't know why Fanini accused me. I don't know him but I know he talks a lot. But if he's got proof he should produce it. That's why I'm going to take legal action against him. I went to Livigno for altitude training. That doesn't mean I was working with that doctor. I know his name but I've never met him.
"People may get tempted to do something but it depends on their character and not only where they grew up. I think that if you've got the talent and the willingness to work hard you don't need anything else. I rode for the small Mastromarco amateur team and then turned professional with Fassa Bortolo. Nobody ever put pressure on me, they let me grow up gradually.
"I just hope to develop gradually and keep improving. I think my best quality as a rider is my recovery in stage races and I've always done well in them. I was 19th in my first Grand Tour. I don't want to predict what I can do in this Giro, it could be unlucky. But I think I can improve even more in the future. I've got Basso there to help me and I can learn a lot from him."
Rival or teammate for Basso?
Basso is now second overall, 13 seconds behind Nibali. Basso is supposed to be the Liquigas-Doimo team leader for the Giro but Nibali insists they will race with equal leadership responsibility.
Defending the pink jersey so early in the Giro could cost the Liquigas team dearly later on, especially in the tough final week, but Nibali wants to keep the jersey as long as possible.
"Basso prepared well for Giro, he's in great form but me in the pink jersey doesn't change things. We've had an equal role from the start of the Giro and that will continue," he said.
"I want to keep the pink jersey for as long as possible. I'm not thinking of the stages in Tuscany, where I live, or Terminillo, the first mountain stage. I'm taking things day by day and we'll see what happens. Keeping the jersey boosts our morale and allows us to be careful in key parts of the race. We've controlled a race before and showed we can be strong right to the end of the race."
If Nibali can go on to win the Giro in Verona and live up to the high moral standards he seems to have set himself, he could become the rider that helps Italian cycling emerge from its problems.
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