BRESCIA, Italy, May 26 – As soon as Vincenzo Nibali took to the saddle of a racing bike he began to represent Italian cycling’s dream of a future world champion.
Sunday’s Giro d’Italia victory fulfilled the hopes of a nation that had been waiting and watching since Nibali won the Tour of Spain in 2010 at the age of 25.
As Italians woke for the final day of the Giro, they were greeted by a triumphant headline from leading sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport which read: “Epic Nibali, the maglia rosa (pink jersey) returns to Italy.”
The 28-year-old Sicilian had sealed the Giro with a second stage victory on Saturday, taken solo in a freezing snowstorm at the Dolomites summit of Tre Cime di Lavaredo.
It was a far cry from the thousands of Italian fans who lined the streets of Brescia for the race’s final stop a day later, many of them waving blue flags with the picture of a shark, in honour of Nibali’s nickname.
Prior to this year’s Giro, Nibali had shown consistent form by claiming a second consecutive victory in Tirreno-Adriatico, Italy’s second most important stage race, as well as a win in the Giro di Trentino, a key warm-up event.
Born in Messina in 1984, Nibali started to ride a bike aged three, racing on imaginary circuits around his parent’s newspaper shop.
An ambitious rider, he even attempted to ride up Mount Etna, Sicily’s best-known volcano, aged 10, but his parents managed to stop him.
There was no holding him back though when he decided to head to Tuscany in northern Italy, aged 16, to race in one of the region’s flourishing amateur clubs.
Nibali was snapped up by pro team Fassa Bortolo in 2005 and after a move to Liquigas one year later he seemed set for a classics career, with his first professional win coming in one of France’s top one-day races, the GP Ouest France.
Top-20 placings in his first two Giro d’Italia races in 2007 and 2008, as well as 20th overall in his debut in the 2008 Tour de France convinced Nibali he should focus on stage racing.
The 2010 Giro d’Italia represented Nibali’s biggest breakthrough, where he replaced Italian team mate Franco Pellizotti five days before the start of the race.
Nibali made the most of his last-minute inclusion, briefly leading the Giro in its first week.
After he lost the lead in a crash, Nibali battled on to take a mountain-stage win in Asola after a 40-km lone break. He went on to finish third overall behind team mate Ivan Basso.
Following victory in the 2010 Vuelta, which he won through consistency without taking a single stage, Nibali placed second in the 2011 Giro and third in the 2012 Tour de France behind Sky’s Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome.
A switch of team, to Astana in 2013, has seen Nibali ramp up his time-trial work with lengthy sessions in the wind tunnel and on the track to improve his positioning.
“I have never made so many sacrifices or worked so hard as this year,” Nibali said recently.
His next big objectives will be the World Championships, on home soil in Florence in September, and a possible assault on the Tour de France, the one Grand Tour he has yet to win.
(Editing by Mark Pangallo)