In the forthcoming Tour de France of 2019 Vincenzo Nibali, according to his coach, is a ‘dangerous loose cannon.’
And if you’re going to be a loose cannon, be a dangerous one, is my advice. Geraint Thomas, Egan Bernal, Jakob Fuglsang; these guys are tightly efficient and well maintained. Not loose, but serviceable. Standard issue (and potentially race-winning) cannons.
If it’s all coming loose, then be dangerous.
Nibali – Italian, Sicilian, Bahrain Meridian – has, here at road|THEORY, found himself catapulted in recent months into that niche category of pro cyclists known as ‘likeably post-peak.’
Here’s how it works.
Most bike race winning pros ascend to their high point in the sport wearing a face of grim, professional, no compromise seriousness (the likes of Peter Sagan are exceptions). They are busy proving themselves. All signs of weakness are avoided. Outward displays of humour, character, or humanity, for example, are strictly rationed.
Alberto Contador springs to mind. Oodles of personality on the bike, nothing off it. Formulaic. Media trained. Unsmiling. Admittedly I don’t speak Spanish – perhaps old snake hips was a total raconteur in his native tongue – but I sense not.
It wasn’t until his final Vuelta Espana, in 2017, that Contador became ‘likeably post-peak.’ Out of contention, and fallible, he went on the attack. He marauded and threw caution to the wind. Each doomed effort more exciting than the last.
This version of the Spaniard – the plucky loser – I could relate to. I rooted for him. And very quickly, I realised I would miss him.
By the time he took a stage win on the Angliru I was almost teary and emotional, grieving for the loss from our sport of the previously monotone Madrileno.
Nibali, very much now the veteran, has followed a similar trajectory. In his pomp, interviewers would describe him as ‘guarded’ and ‘mistrustful of those outside his close inner circle.’
I took that to be code for rude. Or arrogant. Perhaps I’m being unfair, but that’s the vibe he gave off through the TV screen. In hindsight I realise I enjoyed the spiky interviews and the mid-race spats. Now, in his final seasons, I can’t get enough of him.
His daring raid to win at Milan San-Remo in 2018, for example – attacking on the Poggio, playing chicken with the descent, and holding off the sprinters – was visceral and tingle inducing.
As exciting as sport gets.
Even in the 2019 Giro d’Italia, a race he contended through pride, willpower, and muscle memory, and never really looked like winning, he was an absolute joy to watch. The brain was whirring as much as the legs. Race-craft, they call it.
He capped this off by playing the doting dad on the podium, and offering warm congratulations to race winner Richard Carapaz (and his adorable offspring too).
And now, as a ‘dangerous loose cannon’, could it be that my favourite Sicilian is about to go all guns blazing in search of the polka dot jersey?
Because if he did, and succeeded, he would catapult himself up way beyond ‘likeably post-peak’ and in the direction of ‘I…LOVE that guy!’
I do enjoy a King of the Mountains.
The past two editions of Le Tour have been lit up – owned, even – by Julian Alaphilippe and Warren ‘WaWa’ Barguil.
Yes, there are sprinters and Yellow Jerseys, calculating percentages, picking moments, and gauging efforts; meanwhile, the chap wearing polka dots is up the road, bagging summits, and riding himself to a standstill in the service of entertainment.
The jazz saxophone of the pro peloton.
Three years ago that’s not how I would’ve described Vincenzo Nibali. I do hope that’s where this is heading.
(Main Image: Ciclismo Italia via Flickr CC)