Vincenzo Nibali didn’t dominate his era at the Giro d’Italia as remorselessly as Alfredo Binda or Eddy Merckx, but he defined it in the manner of Francesco Moser or Felice Gimondi. In the annals of the race, he will be the central character in any retelling of the past dozen years or so.
His retirement at the end of this season leaves an obvious hole in the overarching narrative of the Giro. For more than half his career, Nibali, and Nibali alone, carried home hopes at the Giro. Between 2010 and 2019, he placed on the podium six times in six participations, winning the race outright in 2013 and 2016.
Since the late Michele Scarponi was retroactively awarded the 2011 Giro title, only two other Italian riders – Damiano Caruso and Fabio Aru – even managed to finish on the podium. This year, at 37 years of age and back riding with Astana, Qazaqstan, Nibali, Italy’s most obvious general classification contender until his time loss on Mount Etna, despite his protestations to the contrary.
Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) retains hopes of developing as a three-week rider, and this May might yet see him make a leap forward, but there is no ready-made replacement for Nibali in the gruppo. Italy already faces an historic, six-year gap without an overall winner when this race reaches Verona on May 29. A longer drought appears inevitable.
“I don’t see a great future, at least for the moment. There are emerging riders, but they still have to show signs of making the next step. It’s a problem for Italian cycling in this moment,” Giro director Mauro Vegni told reporters in Palmi on Thursday.
Nibali’s retirement is, of course, a problem for the Giro too. The Sicilian never commanded the same, frenzied adulation as the late Marco Pantani, but his reliability – like his most obvious historical forebear Gimondi – made him the most recognisable figurehead for tifosi on the roadside and casual observers on television.
The host broadcaster’s on-screen graphics always provided updates on the ‘Gruppo Nibali,’ even in the past two years when he was fading ever further from the podium picture. And when, in 2020, the Giro was delayed to October amid the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, RAI naturally built its advertising campaign around Nibali, who pedalled computer-generated alongside renderings of past champions to the strains of ‘Nessun Dorma.’ No matter the winner, Nibali was always the star.
“The French have had the problem of not having a rider who can compete for the GC of the Tour. For us Italians, it’s certainly not good that we won’t have a rider who can be a protagonist in the Giro,” Vegni said. “It’s clear, we’ll miss him a lot. But while he’s still here, let’s enjoy him.”
Nibali’s Giro debut came in 2007, when he placed 19th while racing for Liquigas in the service of winner Danilo Di Luca. A year later, Nibali’s 11th place finish was relegated to a footnote, as his contemporary Riccardo Riccò battled with Alberto Contador for final overall victory. Both Riccò and Di Luca would, of course, soon be snared by anti-doping controls. In the first decade of the 21st century, such scandals were simply par for the course on the Giro. The EPO era was a dry nightmare from which the seemingly race could not awake.
Nibali’s development in the years that followed, beginning with his successive podium finishes of 2010 and 2011, presented the Giro with a more palatable, marketable home contender. “Vincenzo is a personality who was always above the fray of the stories of doping, and that is to his credit,” said Vegni.
In 2013 on Astana, Nibali’s first overall victory, capped by an exhibition on the snowbound summit of Tre Cime di Lavaredo, helped to put a different gloss on a race clouded both by Di Luca’s latest positive test and the cutting of mountain passes due to bad weather.
“From all his years on the race, the image that stays with me is of Vincenzo in the snow at Tre Cime di Lavaredo,” Vegni said. “He put his soul into it.”
Nibali, of course, did not ride the Giro every year at the peak of his career. In 2014 and 2015, he skipped the race in order to focus on the Tour de France, becoming the only second to reach Paris in yellow since Gimondi in 1965. He would also miss the Giro in 2018 for another tilt at the Tour, but Vegni dismissed the idea that he had exerted pressure on Nibali to make patriotic choices with his racing programme.
“I never insisted much,” he said. “I’d ask him in December what he was doing the following season, and if he said, ‘This year, I have to do the Tour,’ that was fine. It’s the same thing now with Filippo Ganna, who is doing the Tour this year instead of the Giro. Vincenzo rightly chose his own sporting path. And I think he honored Italian cycling a lot, at the Giro, at San Remo, at Il Lombardia, so we can’t reproach him at all.”
Nibali has done the Giro some service. The race director knows it. No more of that.
“I’ve said before that every era is characterised by one rider,” Vegni said. “In the 1980s, it was Hinault. In the 1990s, it was Indurain. In the 21st century, there was Contador, and the rider who personified the last ten years was definitely Vincenzo. He was the guiding light of the era.”