Vincenzo Nibali dedicated his overall victory at the Tour of Croatia to Michele Scarponi, describing his close friend and former Astana teammate as a brother he has lost in a way that is impossible to accept and understand.
Nibali stood head bowed before Saturday's stage as the Tour of Croatia remembered Scarponi with a moment of silence one day after Scarponi was killed in a crash with a van while training in Italy.
While others shed a tear, Nibali preferred to hold in his emotions and bravely found the courage to race on as leader of the Bahrain-Merida team. He has promised to attend Scarponi's funeral on Tuesday and is likely to travel to Scarponi's home in the village of Filottrano on Monday to pay his last respects at the chapel of rest that will be open to the public in the local sports hall.
Nibali missed out on the stage victory on Saturday and lost the leader's jersey but shook off any disappointment. He was determined to win for Scarponi and made sure he took the key intermediate sprint and a time bonus to take back the race lead. He also finished fourth in the same time as stage winner Sacha Modolo, while Saturday's winner Jaime Ronson (Caja Rural) lost a handful of seconds and finished second to Nibali in the overall classification, eight seconds back.
"This win is for Michele, for a great friend; he was like a brother for me," Nibali said.
"The last two days have been difficult and everyone can understand why. I raced with sadness in my heart, even if my form was good. I wanted to win for Michele."
Nibali spoke to Gazzetta dello Sport after Saturday's stage, again holding back his tears. The Italian sports newspaper dedicated its four opening pages to Scarponi's death. He was remembered as the winner of the 2010 Giro d'Italia but also for his character and ever-present smile. A minute's silence was held to remember him before every sporting event in Italy on Sunday.
"There's not much to say. I want to remember Michele with a smile on his face, always ready with a joke or wise crack," Nibali said.
"News of his death left me in shock. I couldn't think of anything else when I was racing. I kept thinking about Michele and his young family, his wife Anna and their twins Giacomo and Tommaso. We can speak for days about what happened and ask why."
Nibali and Scarponi were once rivals, with Nibali finishing third and Scarponi fourth in the 2010 Giro d'Italia. Scarponi was awarded the victory in the 2011 Giro d'Italia after Alberto Contador was disqualified, with Nibali finishing second. In 2014 they became teammates at Astana, with Scarponi playing a huge role in Nibali's victory at the Tour de France. He did the same in the 2016 Giro d'Italia, with the two often sharing rooms at races. They were different in many ways, Nibali is reserved and introverted, Scarponi was the opposite, but they became very close.
"I wasn't surprised that Michele went training so early on Saturday morning, he often did it," Nibali recalled. "I go out much later and he often sent me messages saying: Move it, I'm already out riding my bike.
"I'd wished he'd moved with me to Bahrain-Merida, so that he was still with me. It's so absurd what has happened. It's impossible to understand and to accept."