PARIS - Thirteen years ago, Vincenzo Nibali packed his bags and left his home in Sicily to start the journey that led him to a triumphant ride on the Champs Elysees on Sunday as Tour de France champion.
The 29-year-old Italian, as soft-spoken in life as aggressive as he is on the bike, joined Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault, Alberto Contador and his compatriot Felice Gimondi as winners of all three grands tours.
The son of Giovanna and Salvatore, who own a movie rental shop, Nibali quickly realized riding his bike around the local streets would not be enough to emulate Gimondi.
“With my father, we would watch videos of Merckx, Gimondi, Sarroni, Moser,” the humble Nibali said.
“But I can also talk about Hinault, Bobet. I know their story.”
In a region where family ties are like glue, leaving home could have been a heart-breaking move, but Nibali learned to love his independence.
He moved from Messina to Tuscany to ride at junior level under the guidance of sports director Carlo Franceschi in the Mastromarco team. Nibali, who lived at Franceschi’s home, quickly impressed, taking third place in the junior time trial world championships in 2002 and third again in the Under-23 world championships.
But just like Contador, he is not one to be content with second or third. The chisel-featured Nibali is an attacker and he long paid a heavy price for it.
In the 2011 Tour of Lombardy, one of the most prestigious one-day races, he attacked in the descent of the Madonna del Ghisallo, some 50 kilometers from the finish.
He was caught, but the move was as bold as it was brilliant. In 2012, he was the only rider to attack a dominant Team Sky in the mountains.
He never managed to break the British outfit’s stranglehold on the race, but that is how Nibali rides.
On this year’s Tour, he took the yellow jersey in the second stage after a late attack caught his rivals cold in Sheffield. This time, he was not caught.
Instead of playing it conservatively, Nibali was on the attack on all terrains, distancing Contador in the pouring rain on the treacherous cobbled stage to Arenberg as Britain’s defending champion Chris Froome crashed out.
After Contador was also forced out following a crash in a descent on stage 10, the Astana rider’s lead was not to be threatened, yet the ‘Shark of Messina’ attacked again in the mountains, taking his fourth stage win at the top of Hautacam, a mystic pass draped in eerie fog.
In a sport that was long marred by doping scandals, however, myth has often been mixed with disenchantment.
Nibali is no exception to the habit of making Tour de France champions prime suspects. Bradley Wiggins and Froome, in the wake of the Lance Armstrong scandal, faced repeated grillings over their ethics.
Nibali, the first Italian to win the Tour since the late Maro Pantani in 1998, inevitably had to answer doping-related questions as comparisons were drawn with his disgraced compatriot who was known as “the Pirate”.
“It’s hard to make a comparison between what Pantani did so many years ago and what I’ve done now because Marco won his Tour in the last week, while it was the opposite for me,” Nibali said.
“I took the jersey after two days, I don’t know what to say.”
He will visit Pantani’s mother to give her one of his yellow jerseys because he admired her son.
“I loved his bravery,” he said.
Nibali chose to leave his Liquigas team to work at Astana with manager Alexandre Vinokourov, who served a two-year ban for blood doping on the 2007 Tour de France.
“Astana is a team who invested a lot in an Italian group, precisely because they wanted to give it credibility and because they wanted to change their image,” said Nibali.
“They didn’t just choose me, they also brought in (coach) Paolo Slongo. Let me remind everyone that I worked with him when I was 17 in the national team, together with Antonio Fusi.”
Nibali did not wait to be questioned on the Tour to speak out against doping.
Eight years ago, he said that dopers should be locked up and this year, after former team mate Danilo Di Luca said that it was impossible to win a grand tour without doping, he commented: “I can only think that he has become a bit brain-damaged.”
On Saturday, after his fourth place in the final time trial effectively secured his Tour title, Nibali was questioned again.
“It is true that in 2008, I felt a bit sad and disappointed. I wanted the white jersey (for the best Under-25 rider). But a lot of progress has been made and we can see the results now,” said Nibali.
“If there had not been all these controls, targeted controls, the biological passport, maybe I would not be here.”
Editing by Ed Osmond