At the end of 2015 I wrote about the struggles of being a Vincenzo Nibali fan. I had watched him become a star, watched him throw a bottle at Chris Froome, watched him catch a ride from his team car to earn disqualification from the Vuelta, and then watched as he claimed an angry Lombardia title. At the time I found myself looking back to his Liquigas days to remind myself why I liked him so much. It’s far easier these days and Nibali’s stunning victory at Milan-Sanremo reminded me that not only is he the best Grand Tour contender of his generation, but he’s also a highly likeable rider.
Back in 2015 it was difficult to support the Italian over other riders. To misquote the philosopher Kanye West: I missed the old Nibali, the set on his goals Nibali, I hated the new Nibali, the bad mood Nibali.
Nevertheless, he bounced back in 2016 with a late raid on Esteban Chaves’ Maglia Rosa and a smirking farewell to the Astana management team.
The Bahrain-Merida era began in 2017 and the new Nibali is exceptionally cool. He’s living up to every line that’s ever been written about him. He’s a third-week specialist who you can never rule out. He’s a climbing all-rounder capable of performing feats that the likes of Nairo Quintana can only dream about. He’s an unpredictable rider with plenty of bad days. He’s a demon descender. He’s a tactician. He’s a shark. And yet he remains underrated.
So underrated, in fact, that when he kicked away on the Poggio just metres before the top nobody really responded. He’d failed before with similar moves leading to plenty of frustration and perhaps an acceptance that Sanremo was never going to be his own. He was part of a group of riders known for their doomed moves on Italy’s most famous mini-climb. The bookies had certainly fallen into the trap with Nibali starting the 2018 race at a three-figure price.
It’s unlikely that Peter Sagan and Michal Kwiatkowski would have scoffed at Nibali’s attack but in the hectic Poggio blink-and-you-miss-it environment they were certainly caught napping. The favourites were tuned to watch eachother and were left hoping that Nibali’s attack would be another unsuccessful one.
But the move was too perfect. Nibali got the gap he needed and was alone on the descent. It quickly became apparent that he had broken free from the peloton’s leash and made the big move of the day. The other puncheurs had missed their chance and the teams of the sprinters were summoned into action.
As we approached the Via Roma it became obvious Nibali wasn’t going to be swallowed up by the peloton in the traditional sense. If he was to be caught, a brave sprinter would have to launch early and hunt him down one-on-one as Mark Cavendish had stalked Henrich Haussler in 2009. Defending champion Arnaud Demare loomed in the background but it was Caleb Ewan who roared off the front of the chase pack.
It was a 50/50 situation for viewers and I was left shouting at my phone – the only available screen – as the Italian battled towards the finish line. Nibali was far more confident than his cheering fans and allowed himself to roll over the line punching the air with his right arm. We all remember the times riders get it wrong with their celebrations but we forget how many times they get it just right. Nibali knew he’d done enough; Ewan’s dramatic sprint would never quite reach him.
This past Sunday we saw Elia Viviani shed tears after losing out in the Gent-Wevelgem finale to Sagan. He looked heartbroken but his tears were that of a rider who had expected to win and thought he had failed. Nibali was overcome by an entirely different emotion in Sanremo. He looked like a man who had almost given up hope of winning the race. It was brilliant.
Nibali’s become a shrewd one-day racer and tactician but has never left his Grand Tour roots behind. He was third at last year’s Giro playing the role of the Tom Dumoulin’s evil nemesis before delivering a very impressive – and far more popular – second place (first place?) at the Vuelta.
In his current form, Nibali is a rider we want to see on the start line of every race. He’s been collecting fans for years with his unique – and almost retro – approach to racing but has shed plenty along the way with his attitude and ruthless tactics.
Approaching the autumn of his career, Nibali should no longer have to answer his critics. He had won all three Grand Tours by the age of 29 and can now boast the most unlikely combination of Monuments.
I (almost) met Nibali in Liege in 2016 as he walked quickly through lines of fans brushing the occasional hand. Determined not to ruin his morning, I just nodded at him and wished him good luck in my patchwork Italian. He was neither cold nor responsive. It looked as if he was thinking solely about the next six hours of racing.
So is the current Nibali the best Nibali? Probably. I loved the rise from Liquigas prospect to Giro d’Italia winner but we only saw glimpses of his personality. Astana was quite clearly the most difficult time in his career but will be remembered fondly for his brilliant performance at the Tour and that (now) iconic tricolore Astana top. Nevertheless, he seems happier than ever at Bahrain-Merida and I’m looking forward to seeing what he does over the next three years.