By Steve Thomas, Photos: Bettini
Vincenzo Nibali, aka “The Shark”, is a thoroughbred; a man who likes to race with passion rather than just ride. No matter what odds may be stacked against him, you can be sure that the Sicilian will take the fight to the race, often when the opposition least expects it and always with his heart pinned to his sleeve.
With overall victories in all three Grand Tours, he is one of the “magnificent seven,” racers who have won all three of the biggest gunfights in pro cycling.
THE SICILIAN WAY
Tell us about your background in Sicily.
Cycling has been a family affair. My father has always been a big fan. He didn’t race at a competitive level, but he always cycled as an amateur and, above all, he didn’t miss a race on TV.
For my brother Antonio and me, it was natural to absorb this passion of his. I still remember the Giro d’Italia won by Gianni Bugno in 1990. Since my father could not follow the stages live (because he was busy in the family photography and video store), he recorded them, and then after dinner we watched them as a family.
“If I wanted to cultivate my dream of being a racer, I had to emigrate. So, as many Sicilians have done so towards America in previous centuries, I did it towards Tuscany. It wasn’t an easy choice to leave my family at the age of 14, but I had to do it.”
He was the one who put me on the bike and pushed me to try racing. It was not easy to race in Sicily. The racing movement was not developed, and there were only a few events. We often made long trips, even crossing to the mainland in order to race.
If I wanted to cultivate my dream of being a racer I had to emigrate. So, as many Sicilians have done so towards America in previous centuries, I did it towards Tuscany. It wasn’t an easy choice to leave my family at the age of 14, but I had to do it.
Why do they call you “The Shark”?
It’s a nickname I’ve had since I was a junior, one that a journalist gave me for my aggressive and shark-like approach to racing. Then, because I’m from Messina, I became the “Shark of the Strait.”
You live in Switzerland now?
Yes, I’ve lived in Lugano for many years now. It’s a peaceful, serene environment, both to raise a family and to carry out my activity as a rider.
Do you purely train on the road?
During the season I prefer the road, but I have an innate love for mountain bikes and gravel. On a few off days I’ve been known to ride off-road, but it’s mostly off-season that I dedicate myself to the discipline. I practice it often and very happily.
Was moving to Tuscany as a junior the only way to get ahead in racing?
It was a forced choice, and I would add “unfortunately,” because I was not happy to leave my land. I am very attached to Sicily. I have my roots there. But, although throughout history there have been several Sicilian professionals, all of them, in one way or another, have chosen to emigrate to grow up in the sport.
Sicily is a beautiful region to ride. This has been shown in the races of the past, such as Trofeo Pantalica and the Giro dell’Etna, and the many stages at the Giro d’Italia that have been there.
But, unfortunately, for children who take up the sport it is difficult to find facilities and teams to progress with. For this reason, I decided to create the Team Nibali for juniors and U23 riders. There is a need to invest money, but above all, it’s about investing energy.
Can you tell us more about your involvement with Sicilian cycling?
I have always felt the need to contribute and to help young cyclists to emerge. The first step is to transmit that passion for cycling, both as a sport and also as a means of transport. The races can be the next step, but what is needed is to push for a culture of cycling and the use of the bicycle.
With Team Nibali I created a structure that can offer young cyclists a chance. Right away it was an attention-grabbing experience. It’s a slow process, not immediate, but I hope it serves as an example for other entities, and that politicians also pay attention.
What is your feeling and the general view within the peloton towards
I believe that the arrival of disc brakes was a natural and necessary step. I see it as a technical improvement. I’ve always been comfortable with traditional brakes, but I think disc brakes allow for greater dexterity in extreme conditions. For the older generation of riders, it was also a change in mentality. For the younger generation it’s definitely more natural.
There are many new equipment opinions and theories around. Can you tell us how you choose what to ride, and what bike and equipment details you changed?
I think the feeling with the bike is very personal, both in the choices and the approach. Besides being my job, the technical aspects are my passion. I take care of everything on my bike, and I try not to leave anything to chance.
Do you do any off-bike or cross-training, and if so, how important do you feel it is to you?
My workout has always been on the bike. Of course, in the off-season you also need the gym and core exercises, but otherwise for me it’s just the bike, and in all its disciplines.
Do you have a strict diet, and what kind of things do you take note of when eating?
Diet is an integral part of the life of an athlete, and especially of a cyclist. I’ve never been hyper-rigid. I like to eat, and I can even define myself as a glutton, but in preparation for the most important races I’ve always followed a strict plan to reach my ideal weight.
For years I’ve been supported and advised by Dr. Emilio Magni. He has been my team doctor ever since I rode for Team Liquigas right up until now with Trek-Segafredo. The advice and directives of a specialist are fundamental. My diet has always had the fundamentals of the Mediterranean diet.
How different is it riding with a U.S.-backed team like Trek compared to Astana?
Trek-Segafredo is a team with a global breath behind it. There are clear and precise values transmitted directly from the brand. I think that in all the teams I’ve ridden for, the level has always been very high. Sometimes it has been more traditional, as in the days of Astana and Liquigas. But, they were always dedicated to the highest level
However, I’ve never raced for a “Factory Racing” team, and this is the biggest difference. There is a total sharing of approaches between the brand and team, a direct thread that allows you to have a first-class technical support. And then there are the marketing and communication aspects, which are increasingly fundamental for modern times and for the future of cycling.
How do you judge the pace and cadence relationship, and do you ride to computers and power meters?
I think there has been an evolution in recent years and a different approach, too. Over the years the choices have proven me right, but I think it’s necessary to be open to change.
Rigidity is not necessary. Training and racing techniques evolve. It is right to observe and understand in practice if it can bring benefits. This has been my approach. I’ve never made big changes, but I’ve always aimed to improve under the banner of flexibility. Then there’s the age factor, which forces you to rethink your approach. Within that framework, technology and numbers do help to guide you.
What are the differences between the three Grand Tours, and how does winning each rank to you?
The Giro is the race of the heart, and the pressure level for an Italian is always very high. That’s a factor you can never underestimate. I agree with the definition of “toughest race” in terms of route, because the Giro always has very few flat stages. There are many hectic routes and a variety of tough climbs to scare you.
The Tour is without a doubt the hardest race to ride. There is an impressive level of competitiveness, and a tension from the first to the last kilometer. You can never let up, even on a sprinter’s stage. You learn to live with and manage the stress, both in and out of the race.
“What impressed me the most was Sagan, a force of nature and an incredible talent on the bike. What I saw him do in the races, well, I’ve never seen from anyone else.”
The Vuelta has increasingly become the climber’s Grand Tour. It’s the last GT of the season, and you approach it with so many kilometers of racing in your legs and few unknowns about your condition. It’s a race that I’ve always enjoyed a lot, where people have the same warmth as the Italians.
All the Grand Tours I’ve won have had some difficulties, but there hasn’t been one harder than the others. I don’t think there is an easier way to win a Grand Tour. Never.
Being an Italian rider, is the Giro always going to be more important to you than the team?
The Giro has a special charm for an Italian, but we must not forget that it is a Grand Tour with an important history behind it. I don’t think there is a GT rider who doesn’t aspire to win it, and the same goes for the teams. Every time I’ve competed in the Giro there’s been total unity of purpose between the team and me.
Which of your classic wins has been most important to you, and which single-day race would you most like to add to your palmares?
I think Milan-San Remo. It was the one that on paper was the least suitable for me, and it was the most exciting win among the classics I’ve won. It came almost by accident, with a finale where I went all in. When I crossed the finish line, I almost didn’t think I had made it.
Then there are the two Lombardia victories. I started as the favorite and managed to win. I think that’s one of the hardest things for a rider in general. The race I’d like to add is Liege-Bastogne-Liege. I came close to it in 2012, and
I still can’t quite digest the way I lost it.
Many were shocked at your Milan-San Remo win in 2018. Going into the last two climbs did you think you had a chance, and how did you play it out?
With courage. Tactics in the Milan-San Remo mostly count in the last kilometers. Being in a good position and saving energy are key. Then, for riders like me (who would have no chance in a sprint finish), you need strength and courage to dare go for it. All of this was a part of it, and, of course, I had excellent condition.
How different has it been racing and training during the pandemic?
Obviously, it has been very different. All athletes get excited if someone cheers at your exploits. Getting to the signing on the podium and not finding an audience, or sprinting uphill without the crowd cheering you on, is not as good. We’ve had to live with this deficit in order for racing to happen. But, sports and racing are more beautiful if there is a crowd.
There are a lot of younger riders winning the big races now. How do you think cycling has changed in that regard in the past couple of years, and which of these younger riders most impresses you?
It’s clear that the timing of maturity of these riders was much anticipated. At the age when Bernal or Pogacar were winning a Tour, I was still growing up.
“Over time you gain maturity, and you don’t get caught up in impulsiveness. I’ve never lost my desire to attack, to try without calculating. What can I still achieve? The road will tell, as usual.”
We are living in a moment of change, both in generational terms, with new talents emerging, and in terms of setting up careers. It will be interesting to follow how and how much these talents can perform at the top of their game. However, regardless of age, it cannot be disputed that the basis of everything is talent. Bernal, Pogacar and Evenepoel are those who impressed me the most. They would have shown their talent sooner or later.
How would you say pro cycling has changed during your career?
I think it’s evolved, and I say fortunately. Cycling has become more professional in every aspect. Preparation, training, performance, testing and marketing are all now a big part of it.
In every area there has been upward growth. But, it’s good to say that it’s thanks to the genius of the champions; the desire to invent and attack, to surprise and to make a spectacle that remains in people’s hearts when following the sport.
What do you think about riders like Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel riding different disciplines. Will it become normal?
It’s not the first time we’ve seen riders shine who weren’t born on the road. Just think of Sagan. He turned pro for Liquigas during the years that I was racing there as well. I think he brings added value, especially in bike riding. And, if it can be a good way to bring young people closer to cycling, welcome.
During your career, which riders have most impressed you, and which are the ones you fear and respect the most?What impressed me the most was Sagan, a force of nature and an incredible talent on the bike. What I saw him do in the races, well, I’ve never seen from anyone else. The one I respected the most in the Grand Tour challenges was Alberto Contador.
As you get older, do you think that you have changed a lot in how you race, and what do you still think you can achieve?
I think I’ve always remained the same rider. Over time you gain maturity, you become more thoughtful and you don’t get caught up in impulsiveness. These are the benefits of gaining experience. But, I’ve never lost my desire to attack, to try without calculating. What can I still achieve? The road will tell, as usual