So…Vincenzo Nibali seems like a barrel of laughs, doesn’t he?
Cycling journalists usually refer to him as “the proud Sicilian.” This is code. It means he’s moody, and evasive, and paranoid.
The characterisation is always fleshed out with descriptions of a loyal inner circle. A small handful of friends he can trust. Not easy to befriend, but once he lets you in, you’re in for life.
He’s a family man. He likes the quiet life. If it weren’t for all these damn journalists – parasites – who insist on taking an interest in him as he races his bike on TV while being well paid.
Ruining his quiet life.
To be clear, I’m not passing judgement on Siciliy – never been, know little about the place – but on the character being played by Nibali. It’s a character that Alberto Contador made his own for many years.
But Contador comes from the town of Pinto, near Madrid. He’s never been referred to as the proud Pinto-esque (or whatever the Spanish for ‘man from Pinto’ is…) because that would elicit: “eh…wha…where!?”
If Contador was Basque or Catalan he would definitely be the proud Basque (or Catalonian); that would’ve worked beautifully.
But apart from a non-descript home-town he ticks all the boxes: close circle of friends, guarded interviews, trusted teammates, mild aura of paranoia, cryptic nods to past ‘wrongs’ at the hands of journalists.
Or, should I say, he ‘ticked’ all the boxes.
Because a couple of years back he gloriously stopped winning. He looked vulnerable, and human, and became a joy to watch. He started to laugh and joke in interviews, as if once the pressure to win had gone he relaxed.
He continued to talk up his chances pre-race, but he was fooling no-one, and probably wasn’t even trying. It was habit. In his final race – the Vuelta Espana of 2017 – he was reckless, joyous, and the star of the race.
Maybe in a couple of years Nibali will lighten up too, but at the moment he’s still in bike-race winning mode; with stage wins at both the Vuelta and the Giro d’Italia this year, and his recent thrilling escape at Il Lombardia.Embed from Getty Images
And actually, get beyond the grumpiness and the mood swings, the sullen quotes to the press and the, dare I say, chip on his shoulder, and he’s a bloody brilliant bike racer.
He attacks. He descends like a lunatic. He wins all kinds of bike races. He very occasionally even does a weird shark-fin salute as he crosses the line.
What more do you want in a cyclist?
There are signs recently, too, that in a set-piece interview (as opposed to the highly strung post-race quote), he talks like a real human.
He said recently, of Froome, that: “if he hadn’t found a team as strong as Team Sky he wouldn’t have won his four Tours….”
To which, the social media response was: “erm…no shit, Sherlock…stating the obvious there mate.”
But beyond the headline, what he was saying was that Froome has never really had to make bold, risky moves. That his team deliver him to the end-game of mountain stage, and he finishes things off.
“They set everything up for him and make it easier for him. He’s like a sprinter that needs to be led out until 250 metres to go. He then takes over and uses his better position and climbing ability to win. That’s his speciality.”
For a seasoned and media trained sportsperson, it’s verging on the interesting. It’s definitely blunt. And it beats the hell out of platitudes and polite tiptoeing.
In person, I’m not convinced Nibali would be my cup of tea – and yes, I’m sure he’s devastated by that fact – but as a cyclist I like him. In that I don’t really like him.
The thought of 180 nice, pleasant, likeable athletes pedalling around France every year is not my idea of fun.
We need the likes of Nibali (and Bouhanni, and Valverde, and Moscon) to inject a bit of mongrel into proceedings.
I’m happy to announce that upon the retirement of Alejandro Valverde, whenever that might be, I will be officially anointing Vincenzo Nibali – proud Sicilian, Shark of Messina – as the new pantomime villain of pro-cycling.
I feel sure he will do that title justice.
At least until he stops winning and cheers up a bit.
(Home Menu Image: via andolfato Flickr cc)