Nibali's journey from Sicily ends in yellow in Paris
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.
"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 learnt 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 kilometres 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.
MYTH AND DISENCHANTMENT
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.
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