Vincenzo Nibali was handed a phone after he had celebrated winning Milan-San Remo and was surprised to realise that on the other end of the line was Eddy Merckx, keen to congratulate him on his solo victory.
Merckx won Milan-San Remo seven times during his own career and knew there was something cannibalesque about the way Nibali had attacked his rivals on the Poggio, distanced them over the top and then held them at bay all the way until the Via Roma. Merckx famously celebrated in the Via Roma with one arm in the air, Nibali took time to look back at the sprinters who were chasing him and then began to wave both arms furiously as he celebrated yet another career-defining moment.
Like Merckx, Nibali is able to win monument classics as well as the Giro d'Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana. He has now completed an Italian trifecta, having already won ll Lombardia twice and the Giro d'Italia twice. His ability to win both Grand Tours and monument Classics makes him a rarity in hyper-specialised modern cycling. He joins Felice Gimondi, Bernard Hinault and Merckx in the exclusive club of riders who have won all three Grand Tours and two different monuments.
"Eddy has won Milan-San Remo a lot of times, he's won everything. He's got an expert eye and so knows how to appreciate a special win," Nibali said after his brief chat with the cannibal, revealing his pride at becoming the first Italian since Filippo Pozzato in 2006 to win Milan-San Remo.
"We raced really well and then this pearl came out of it all," he said spontaneously.
"I'm still struggling to take it all in. I didn't think really think I'd win this morning. I was cool, calm and collected in the finale. When the Latvian champion attacked, I went after him because we were riding for Colbrelli. Then when we had 20 seconds and the Poggio got steeper I decided to go for it alone. I tried to stay strong, go hard and be constant. The last two kilometres seemed never ending but I pushed and pushed, and I made it."
Flying under the radar
Nibali revealed that he had a shared leadership role with Sonny Colbrelli but after coming out of Tirreno-Adriatico and flying under the radar in the build-up, he was not under pressure to perform. That seemed to help him soar away on the Poggio, just as he had dreamed of doing as a boy when watching multiple editions of Milan-San Remo at home in Sicily.
"Milan-San Remo is one of the races I watched a lot as a boy but I'd never really thought I could win it because it was so suited to the sprinters. Now I want to really enjoy this win. I want to watch the race again and really savour it.
"It wasn't on my programme and I was doubtful about riding. I've got to thank my coach Paolo Slongo who reminded me that it's always such an unpredictable race. I felt I was getting stronger and stronger at Tirreno-Adriatico and so I started to think about Milan-San Remo in the final days of the race.
"We had two key points in the race where it was up to me to move: on the Cipressa if five or six riders got away, I had to go with them and be passive. Then the Poggio was the most dangerous point because there could have been attacks from Kwiatkowski and Sagan. I was there waiting and watching. I just waited for someone to go and then went for it myself."
A friend's pact with Peter Sagan
Nibali compared his attack on the Poggio with that at the Tour de France in 2014, when he jumped away from the raging peloton in the final kilometres to Sheffield and stayed away to win the stage and take the leader's yellow jersey.
That day former teammate and still close friend Peter Sagan played a key part his victory by refusing to chase him even if he was on a rival team. Sagan preferred to again take a loyal, passive role when Nibali attacked on the Poggio, forcing his rivals, especially Team Sky, to chase his friend.
Nibali confirmed that he spoke to Sagan just before the start of the Poggio.
"We are very good friends and I said to Peter: "What are you doing? Waiting for the sprint?" Nibali explained.
"He didn't know how to respond but it was a trick question because my role at that time was to be a stopper for Colbrelli and not an attacker. I just wanted to understand his intentions.
"I know that if I win Milan-San Remo, I have to win alone. If I was with Alaphilippe, Kwiatkowski or Gilbert, I know I'd be beaten. In the finale, I was focused on making the right decision. I knew I had to go for it alone, it was the right thing to do. It was an attack which came from my head but also my heart. I knew I had to take my chance. It worked out."
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