September 2010: It was three stages from the end of the Vuelta a España, and Vincenzo Nibali was within touching distance of winning his first Grand Tour. His manager, Alex Carera, phoned the rider’s family in Sicily to see if they’d like to join them in Madrid to celebrate.
But when Salvatore Nibali answered the call, it wasn’t his elder son, inches away from a life-changing achievement that few could ever be so bold as to even dream of, that he wanted to discuss. Rather, he greeted the caller with another piece of good news. Antonio, eight years younger, had just won a race earlier that day.
Understandably, Carera was surprised. Vincenzo was in the red jersey in Spain, and here was his father talking about a teenager and some local competition. But then, he says, that’s the kind of family that the Nibalis are. And anyway, they couldn’t possibly go to Spain, because their daughter was about to give birth and they wanted to be there to see their first grandchild. Parents, said Carera, can often be a big problem for promising athletes, but in the case of Vincenzo Nibali, after being born with an unnatural talent, the Sicilian was doubly blessed by also being part of a loving and grounded family.
May 2017: We’re in the lobby of a smart, seaside hotel in Trabia, half an hour east along the coast from Palermo, towards Cefalù, where stage four of the 100th Giro d’Italia will begin in the morning. Today is a rest day after the opening weekend in, and subsequent ferry trip from, Sardinia.
Even after the logistical shitshow that is moving one of the world’s biggest sporting events some 700 kilometres across the Tyrrhenian Sea from one island to another, there’s a buzz. There’s a finish on Mount Etna to look forward to, and more importantly, one of Sicily’s favourite sons is back. Vincenzo Nibali, the Shark of the Messina Strait, winner of Monuments and multiple Grand Tours, is outside on a deckchair, enjoying the sunshine and entertaining the local media. Everyone is happy to see him home, not least Salvatore, even if the aforementioned Carera did have to convince him to make the two-hour drive west from his home in Messina.
“Seeing the Giro here in our home is an important time for everyone here,” says the Sicilian. “The family, the fans, wait until you see the scenes downtown in Messina, but also up on Mount Etna, with all the people and the camper vans. Even the scooters – I think there are more than a hundred of them all driving up from the city. They’ve organised a group and are planning to leave them where the real climb starts. It’s not like the Giro comes here often, only every few years. The last time was when Alberto Contador won, in 2011.”
Salvatore has seen a lot of change since then, most of it attributable to his son’s exploits. “There’s more interest in cycling in southern Italy because of Vincenzo, 100 per cent, more than 100 per cent. Maybe you could even say it’s too much,” he says, laughing. “There are too many cyclists out on the roads these days!
“Before, there were only three or four of us, now there are a lot of them that I don’t even know when I go out with the group on a Sunday. When Vincenzo was small, there was very little cycling here.
“For me, it all started quite simply. I was carrying a few kilos too many, and I wanted to get in form. So when my wife wondered what I wanted for my birthday, I asked for a bike, thinking it would help me slim down. It was a Benotto. It was the first time I’d done any sport since turning 30, and I lost the weight right away, I loved it. When Enzo was old enough, I started taking him with me for company, and pretty quickly it was obvious that he could really move, he was doing things that were not indifferent.”
For the record, there are several more natural ways to paraphrase that last description in English, but the correspondent is of the opinion that non indifferente is too perfect to mess with.
“He started with a little mountain bike, and a BMX, and after a while, a road bike. The thing about him and the bike was that he always wanted more than the others: different handlebars, a particular type of tyre, a special headset, the good things. Every time we changed something for him, it gave him a charge. You could say to him, ‘Vincenzo, do me a favour and I’ll get you a new saddle,’ and he’d do it right away. And when the new saddle was on the bike, he’d be happy, saying, ‘beautiful, beautiful.’
“I wasn’t a real winner, maybe top ten. I won a Sicilian championship, but he quickly surpassed me, he was so strong, even when he was little. To see him climbing was really something. When we got him a race licence, someone from the local team told me, ‘Sure, every dad says his son is fast.’ Then at the first race, ready, set, go, and Vincenzo was off like a shot! At the finish, that guy was running after him, singing his praises, because there were guys there from all over Sicily, guys who’d raced in Tuscany and elsewhere, and he’d beaten them.
“The next year, he joined the Cicli Fratelli Marchetta team, where he learned about the world of cycling and racing, and then the next step was Carlo Franceschi and the Mastromarco team. They were great people there, exceptional.”
And the anxiety of separation when he went to live and race with them in Tuscany at just 16?
“No, I sent him right away,” he says, laughing. “As soon as the team asked. At home, the better he became, the harder he was to contain. We knew it was right for him, so it wasn’t hard. Watching him growing and racing was a pleasure, you could see he’d be a champion. In the bunch, he could let them go, reel them back, do whatever he wanted, and then when the time was right, strike the knockout blow.
“He just knew what he wanted from a young age. From the age of 12, he’d tell us that he wanted to be a professional cyclist. Whenever he had an accident, he’d tell the doctors, ‘pay attention there with my legs, I want to become a pro.’ Twelve years old.
“I don’t think it was a difficult time for Enzo, either. For him, nothing ever seemed hard. I remember him winning a race near here, in Trabia, it was a circuit race and he lapped the bunch. He attacked and kept going, but even when he was overtaking the other riders, he was still pushing on. The organisers were shouting at him, ‘Hey, Vincenzo, come on! You’ve won, enough!’
“Vincenzo has a certain type of character. Sometimes he doesn’t like to be disturbed, and we can go maybe ten days without speaking, and even then, if he’s going out to ride, I’ll leave him. But I know how much we mean to him, I think it gives him a boost when we’re around. Franceschi told me that if I shouted out to him during a race, you could actually see him accelerate.
“If he needs me, I’m always there. In 2016 at the Giro, Vincenzo had a mechanical during the time-trial, and he lost time. The next day, he lost more time, and at that stage he was sixth in the classification. He called me up and we started talking about the crank lengths. I knew he’d changed them that season for a good reason, because in certain situations, the longer cranks, 175 millimetres, can help you. But I told him, ‘If you’ve always gone well with the old length, and now you can’t accelerate like you used to, your only problem is with the longer cranks.’ He told me that he’d already been talking with the mechanic about changing them back, and all I said was, ‘You don’t need to be talking, you just need to do it.’
“Then, in the last three days of the Giro, he was back. And it wasn’t just the fact that putting the shorter cranks back on helped him physically, it was a little change that made a big difference to his morale, because mentally it gave him a reason to be positive again. He could think to himself, ‘I used to be great when I used this length, so if I put it back, I’ll be great again.’ With Vincenzo, he’s not someone who needs to change anything physically. But you need good legs and a good head to win races.”
These days, if an aspiring young Sicilian cyclist should find himself with more competition on the island than there was back in Nibali’s day, he’ll know who to blame. Both Salvatore and Vincenzo are involved in the ASD Nibali youth cycling team. They’ve had some success in developing talent on the island, but there’s been heartbreak too. While Vincenzo was busy competing at the 2016 Giro, 14-year-old Rosario Costa was riding on a coastal road with his father and some friends when he was hit by a municipal rubbish truck and killed.
“Now it would be a lot easier for a young guy to stay in Sicily. We’ve made a nice little team in Messina with a lot of interesting talent. Sadly, we lost a campioncino [little champion] last year. What happened to Rosario was a disgrace, a tragedy. He was such a nice boy, affectionate, friendly, so talented. He was genuinely so strong, he reminded me of Vincenzo, also the way he was softly-spoken, always polite. He was the only kid I’d taken with me to the Giro, with the team, he was in the room with Vincenzo while he got his massage, a bit like a little brother.
“It’s hard to start again after something like that. There’s a road we used to ride together all the time, and for three or four months, I didn’t use it at all. It was Vincenzo who made me. He has the roads on which he likes to train, and this one brings you towards Milazzo. During that period, I was going the opposite way, towards Taormina, on a stretch that’s not as nice with a lot more wind. Vincenzo convinced me, and now I go back that way all the time, but every time I pass, there’s sorrow.”
February 2018: Nibali isn’t one for bombastic confidence or bold predictions. But he’s not one to sell himself short, either. It’s ridiculous to say, but there were some who pretended to be less than impressed with his efforts in 2017, suggesting that he, one of only six riders in history to win all three Grand Tours, might not be good enough, that he might be past it, that a win at Il Lombardia, his second at that Monument, on the back of podium finishes at the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España, was somehow a poor return.
“There were no disappointments in 2017. It was a good year, I won at the Tour of Croatia, a stage at the Giro d’Italia, another at the Vuelta a España. I think I did a good job for my team-mates, too, like Giovanni Visconti’s victory at the Giro dell’Emilia, I made a great assist there for him. Then Il Lombardia, a Monument, of which there are very few, especially for riders like me. So when I look back on it, I’m more than satisfied with it, I’m very happy.
“Success comes in different ways. It’s something that’s built, but also something that can come as a surprise. There are a lot of parts to it. Perhaps the success of a victory has the most flavour, but to always be there, always competitive, that’s also success, and it has its own value, because it shows the quality of the rider, year after year. You have to take all of these different elements together.”
The full version of this feature was first published in Rouleur 18.3