'Something strange, a sort of magical feeling' - Nibali calls time on career at home in Messina

Vincenzo Nibali during his final Giro d'Italia
Vincenzo Nibali during his final Giro d'Italia (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

On the other side of Messina's sickle-shaped harbour, the sun poured down like honey on the golden statue of Our Lady of the Letter. Directly opposite, in a makeshift television studio on the waterfront on Corso Garibaldi, the city's living landmark was blinking back tears as he announced his retirement from professional cycling.

"I wanted to confirm that this is my last Giro and my last season," Vincenzo Nibali told RAI television's Processo alla Tappa programme after he had completed stage 5 in the body of the peloton.

Nibali had crossed the finish line alongside Domenico Pozzovivo, who made a point of reaching over to pat his former teammate on the shoulder, seemingly already aware of the imminent announcement.

In the press room, the rumour had spread quietly from morning. Those who had been forewarned discreetly followed Nibali as he was guided by soigneur Michele Pallini back through the finish area towards the RAI platform. They stood and strained to listen as Nibali confirmed the inevitable: at 37 years of age, his career was in its final months.

Once the announcement was broadcast, word spread quickly among the tifosi along the roadside. Already craning their necks for a glance of Nibali, the messinesi now began to serenade the hometown favourite: "Vin-cen-zo, Vin-cen-zo!" The chant grew louder again when Nibali descended the steps of the RAI platform and paused to speak with the reporters who had kept vigil there.

"No, it wasn't by chance that I made the announcement here," Nibali said. "I already knew for a few years that there would be a stage in Messina. My career, like I said, was long. I think it was the moment to choose the most appropriate place where to announce this, and I chose Messina. And after so many years, when the moment arrives, it leaves a mark."

A decision years in the making

Nibali's farewell had been in the offing for some time. His seventh place in the pandemic-delayed Giro of 2020 seemed to bring with it a tacit acceptance that he would not beat Fiorenzo Magni's mark as the oldest winner in the race's history. When he reached Milan in 18th overall after an injury-plagued build-up last year, his post-race debrief with reporters from the passenger seat of a team van on Piazza Duomo had a vaguely valedictory feel.

He signalled his intention to continue shortly afterwards by returning to Astana-Qazaqstan, but only on a one-year contract. The decision to retire was gradually taking hold, though he declined to confirm as much in the winter.

"It was clear that the moment had come, but it was for me to decide. It was only for me. And I wanted to come here," Nibali said. "There were various moments that were difficult. But I can say that already since last year, I knew the Giro would be coming to Sicily and having a stage finish in Messina, so I wanted to come as far as here."

Nibali's tears during his televised announcement recalled his fellow countryman Francesco Totti's emotional retirement from football in 2017, albeit with one crucial difference. Totti's final match at the Stadio Olimpico was tinged with a hint of rancour that he had been almost pushed into retirement by AS Roma. Nibali, by contrast, had long accepted his career was drawing to a close.

There would, he confirmed, be no last-minute change of mind. "No, I don't think so," Nibali smiled. When a reporter suggested that Nibali felt he was no longer physically capable of continuing, the rider feigned indignation. "Mah… I never said that," he said.

Nibali still has two-and-a-half weeks of this Giro to race, after all, and his career will continue until October and Il Lombardia. The long farewell will have multiple stops all along the peninsula between now and the finish in Verona, but Nibali dismissed the idea that it would simply be a lap of honour. Although his general classification hopes faded when he lost over two minutes at Mount Etna on Tuesday, he will try to sign off on his relationship with the Giro d'Italia on a high note.

"I want to try to do something on this Giro. It won't be easy, but let's see," Nibali said. "In this moment, it's a mix of emotions, of strong feelings. But now I'm drawing a line under it and I'll live my Giro day by day. I want to enjoy it to the finish."

Italy and the Giro

Nibali's retirement leaves a void in Italian cycling. Along with Felice Gimondi, he stands as the country's most successful rider of the post-Coppi era, even if he never enjoyed the level of adulation afforded to Marco Pantani or lived a rivalry as intense as that of Francesco Moser and Giuseppe Saronni.

For most of his career, Nibali was his nation's standard-bearer, winning the Giro, Tour de France and Vuelta a España, as well as Milan-San Remo and Il Lombardia. Or, as Angelo Costa of Tuttobici put it: "Italy places its hopes in him when he rides the Grand Tours, when he rides the big Classics and when he rides his bike to the supermarket."

For casual fans in Italy, meanwhile, Nibali was the most recognisable face when they drew the curtains and switched on the television on so many May afternoons. Between 2010 and 2019, he finished on the podium in each of his six Giro appearances, and the host broadcaster has always been glad to build its narrative around a familiar, reliable face.

Longstanding RAI commentator Adriano De Zan's commendation of Gimondi in the 1970s could just as readily be applied to Nibali: "A television commentator has an obligation to offer viewers a safe product... With Gimondi, I could be certain." Nibali, like Gimondi, was a guarantee.

"The tifosi along the road have always responded very positively to me. It's been beautiful all these years and it still is," Nibali said on Wednesday. "I can't do any more now than send them a hug."

Nibali was mobbed by supporters as made his way from the finish area towards a van that was waiting to bring him to the ferry terminal in Messina. For the umpteenth time, he would cross the strait on Wednesday evening, this time to begin the final chapter of his career.

Earlier in the afternoon, as the route dropped from the climb of Portella Mandrazzi towards Milazzo, and then hugged the coast road through Villafranca Tirrena and Granatari, Nibali was briefly struck by the distance he had covered. For a moment it was yesterday.

"Today the last 130km were on the roads where I always trained, the roads I grew up on as a child," he said. "It was something strange, a sort of magical feeling that also brings you back in time a bit."

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Barry Ryan
Head of Features

Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.