Tour de France 2014: Vincenzo Nibali confirmed as champion as he puts Italy back on the map with triumph

Astana rider restores one of the sport's traditional powerhouses to top spot by becoming first Italian winner since Marco Pantani in 1998

After three successive years of Tour de France winners whose nationalities and backgrounds show how cycling has developed into a global sport, the coronation of Vincenzo Nibali as the 2014 Tour champion saw one of cycling’s most traditional power bases – Italy – recoup some of its lost status.

This represents, in a sense, a return for cycling to its roots. In 2011 Cadel Evans became Australia’s first Tour winner, then Bradley Wiggins followed suit for the United Kingdom in 2012. And though Chris Froome holds a British passport, Froome – fluent in Swahili and with two Masai spears painted on his bike – became the first ever African-born Tour champion last year.

But rather than another chapter in a narrative of what cycling’s bigwigs like to call “mondialisation” or the globalisation of the sport, Nibali, a 29-year-old Sicilian, is the seventh rider from his country in the Tour’s 111-year history to take cycling’s showcase event. He is the first Italian to win it, though, since the late Marco Pantani in 1998. It is an indication of how, during the Lance Armstrong era (1999-2005) – and for nearly a decade afterwards Tour success has been patchy at best for Italy and other top cycling nations such as Belgium, France and the Netherlands. Nibali’s first place, as well as second and third for host nation riders Jean-Christophe Péraud and Thibaut Pinot, suggest that this is no longer the case.

 

“I’m pleased because it’s been far too long since an Italian won,” Felice Gimondi, who won the Tour de France for Italy in 1965, told the French newspaper Le Journal Du Dimanche yesterday. “He’s becoming enormously popular here.”

Nibali’s agent, Alex Carera, recounts that after last year’s season, the Italian was asked to take part in just one television chat show. Not only is Carera now besieged with requests for interviews and book proposals for his protégé, Italy’s establishment has sat up and noticed, too: five days ago Nibali had already received a congratulatory telegram from Italy’s Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi.

“The lack of success, particularly in the one-day Classics as well as Grand Tours, had reduced general interest in cycling,” said journalist Ciro Scognamilio from Italy’s top sports newspaper, La Gazzetta dello Sport. “But now that’s changed.

“We haven’t had so many pages in our newspaper about cycling in years, excepting ‘our’ race, the Giro d’Italia, and we’ve had more coverage than football five or six times now this July – which is equally rare. The last time that happened was with Pantani in 1998, so you can see how important this has become.”

Vincenzo Nibali poses on the podium after winning the Tour de France Vincenzo Nibali poses on the podium after winning the Tour de France  

Nibali’s countrywide popularity is also due to his ability to cross some of Italy’s most entrenched social divisions. He was born in the coastal town of Messina, Sicily, where his parents ran a DVD rental shop, but the absence of a strong cycling scene there meant, as he recalled earlier in the Tour, “that my father would drive me for hundreds of kilometres to Catania or Palermo so I could race. Sometimes we’d eat and sleep in the car to save on costs.”

Aged 15, Nibali then took the 13-hour train ride north to join one of his country’s top clubs, the Mastromarco, in Italian cycling’s heartland, Tuscany, and lived for months at a time on the other side of the country. What turned out to be a nine-year move north as a teenager was not only a sign of his determination to succeed in cycling – that was marked by him turning pro in 2005 – but it also gained Nibali a fan base stretching from Italy’s deep south to the industrial north.

In the Tour, too, Nibali’s steady progress – 20th in 2008, seventh in 2009, third in 2012 – helped make the Sicilian one of the pre-race favourites, albeit less so than the standout contenders Alberto Contador and Chris Froome. He was certainly no less experienced than either the Spaniard or Briton in Grand Tour racing, having won the Vuelta a España in 2010 and the Giro d’Italia in 2013.

Insiders say Nibali’s depth of knowledge of his sport was one key to his Tour success this year, and so, too, was his ability to detach himself from the pressure of leading the Tour.

“It was as if he never was actually wearing the maillot jaune [yellow jersey],” commented his Astana team-mate Alessandro Vanotti, who was at Nibali’s side for his triumphs in the Giro and Vuelta. “When he gets off the bike, he’s immediately disconnected from the race, he’s never stressed out and that’s a sign of his inner strength.”

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As the race leader for all bar one day since stage two at Sheffield, Nibali’s iron control was such that he took stage wins and increased his lead in all three major mountain ranges – the Vosges, the Alps and the Pyrenees. His insistence on the need for repeated wins – a rarity in an era when riders tend to prefer to race conservatively – is, he has said, because he did not wish to give his rivals any room for manoeuvre.

“I made the mistake of underestimating them in last year’s Vuelta,” Nibali explained, “and I lost the race as a result. That wasn’t going to happen again.”

The only question mark is whether Nibali could have had such a trouble-free ride to victory in the Tour had the race’s two top contenders, Froome and Contador, not crashed out. But as former Irish great Sean Kelly, a four-times winner of the Tour’s points jersey, pointed out to the specialist website Cyclingnews: “People will say Contador wasn’t there and Froome wasn’t there, but as a rider if you win the Tour de France you don’t care.

“Some of the green jerseys I won you could possibly say there wasn’t that many great sprinters in the race, but for me I won four green jerseys and that’s it. You beat who is in front of you. If you look at Nibali, he’s a rider who was getting places in the Tour, the Vuelta and the Giro and he’s won all three and you can’t take away from that.”

For now, in any case, the Italian has given a huge morale boost to one of cycling’s traditional powerhouses and it remains to be seen whether the sport’s “incomers”, such as Great Britain with Froome, can bounce back in next year’s Tour de France.

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