Vincenzo Nibali’s Tour de France win gives Italy hope of a clean break
Sixteen years and a whole world separate Vincenzo Nibali’s victory in the Tour de France and the last time an Italian rode up the Champs Elysées in yellow. When the late Marco Pantani completed his Giro-Tour double in 1998, Nibali – who finished safely in the pack here behind the stage winner Marcel Kittel – was 13-and-a-half years old.
Pantani’s win was forged in the chaos and controversy of the scandal-hit 1998 Tour, but if there is a similarity it is that both were based on one crushing blow in pouring rain and cold: Pantani’s win at Les Deux Alpes, and Nibali’s ride through the mud and cobbles of northern France with the help of his team-mate Lieuwe Westra, in a stunning piece of team tactics which might well have won him the Tour even if Alberto Contador and Chris Froome had remained in one piece.
Young Enzo – as his parents still call him – admired Pantani for his charisma and bravado but at that age he had no need to enter the moral debate that mention of “the Pirate” still provokes. He bought a saddle branded with Pantani’s skull and crossbones logo – from cash he raised himself taking photos of local amateur races and selling them on – and wore a Pirate bandana, as so many did. This week Nibali said that if he won this year’s tour, he would give one of his yellow jerseys to Pantani’s mother.
It was two years after Pantani’s win that Nibali made the move which made him and which still defines him: he was only 15 when he upped sticks for Tuscany, to the same amateur team, Monsummanese Grassi Mapei, which launched the career of Richie Porte. Like so many Sicilians, he felt he had no option but to emigrate to make his way. “There were no races in the south, no money, not much knowledge, and my father had to drive hundreds of kilometres to take me to races,” he said.
The move to the prosperous north was one made by thousands upon thousands of his countrymen; it was a 13-hour train ride from where the Messina ferry reaches the Italian mainland at Reggio Calabria. His good fortune, he says now, was an independent streak which enabled him to survive away from his family. Even now, he lives in Lugano, coincidentally the same Swiss city as Contador.
This helps explain why the new yellow jersey is so different in character to the two men who preceded him, Bradley Wiggins and Froome. He still has the look of a young man in strange surroundings, not quite trusting those around him. It was said of Miguel Indurain that the woman he married would never truly know her husband, and there is something of the enigmatic Big Mig in Nibali.
Since his very first races Nibali has been nicknamed “the shark” for the kind of incisive attack which won him the stage into Sheffield three weeks ago, and which he hopes will one day win him a major one-day race such as the Giro di Lombardia or World Championship; off his bike he is far more restrained.
There is none of the banter – and occasional potty-mouthedness – that Wiggins brought to the Tour. Nibali visibly ponders the questions and steers well clear of that old staple of Italian cycling: polemica. It is a contrast with the quick-mouthed Italian cycling champions of the past, underlining that Nibali flies the same flag but is not cut from the same cloth as Coppi, Cipollini or Moser.
If there is a false note in the Nibali register, it is, as is usually the case in cycling since 1998, the doping question. He has been questioned on the Tour – less than Froome or Wiggins – but whether by character or culture, he is cautious on the issue. Asked point-blank if he was clean – a question which, according to your point of view is either appropriate for the times or impertinent – he referred the interlocutor to the sacrifices he has made to arrive at the top of world cycling, and suggested that further research might be appropriate. That looks like stonewalling, but it is in essence the same point made by Wiggins in 2012: I have given so much for this, why risk it all by cheating?
The arguments for Nibali as a clean cyclist are clear: his has been a steady trajectory of improvement over the seven years since he made his Grand Tour debut with 19th overall in the Giro at the age of 22. He and his immediate associates have not been mentioned in any of the many Italian police inquiries into doping in cycling.
Asked about his Astana team’s boss Alexander Vinokourov, who in 2007 served a ban for blood doping, Nibali replied “he has paid his debt and it was to change the team’s image that he brought me in”. The circle of a rider who is proud to be racing clean doing so under Vinokourov’s tutelage may seem hard to square, but the sport has been built around such contradictions since the rainy Sunday when Pantani rode into Paris.
William Fotheringham From Paris Writing for : The Guardian.