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July 27, 2014 – When Vincenzo Nibali pulled on the race winner’s yellow jersey on the podium beneath the Arc du Triomphe on the Champs Elysees in Paris, he was fulfilling in some ways his own destiny.
The 29-year-old Sicilian became the first Italian since Marco Pantani in 1998 to win the Tour de France but his success will have surprised no-one who knew him as a child.
The Shark, as he has long been known, was always convinced about where his true calling lay.
Ever since falling in love with cycling as a boy in Messina, he not only had his heart set on becoming a professional cyclist, he was convinced of the fact.
He once told a surgeon sewing up a gash in his thigh to “do a good job because I’m going to be a professional cyclist”.
Even back then Nibali, known as the best and most fearless descender in the peloton, was a dare-devil whose escapades regularly necessitated a trip to hospital to be patched up.
According to his mother Giovanna, “all the doctors knew his name” at the local hospital
It was just such single-minded determination that would eventually produce the Tour de France champion.
When he set out at the beginning of this season, Nibali had only one goal in his mind.
“All season I was focussing on the Tour while other riders tried to be strong in every race,” he said.
There was also a certain logical progression to the Astana leader’s success at the Grand Boucle.
Nibali is no Chris Froome, darting out of obscurity to announce himself as a major player, seemingly from one day to the next.
The Italian is the same age as his predecessor as Tour champion, but their career trajectories have been very different.
Right from the beginning Nibali showed promise as a young rider, winning a stage of the Settimana Internazionale di Coppi e Bartali as a 21-year-old.
A year later he would finish 19th in his first Grand Tour appearance at the Giro d’Italia.
He progressed gradually, finishing sixth at the 2009 Tour and third at the 2010 Giro before winning the 2010 Vuelta a Espana — widely considered the weakest of the three major stage races.
His progress continued with a second place finish at the 2011 Giro, third at the Tour a year later and then a Giro victory in 2013.
With Froome and former winner Alberto Contador crashing out of this Tour in the first 10 days and Colombian climber Nairo Quintana missing the race altogether, having won May’s Giro, nothing could be more logical than seeing Nibali standing atop the winner’s podium.
Briton Froome’s progress was rather more dramatic.
In 2009 he was riding for Barloworld on the Continental Tour but within two years he had become a Grand Tour contender for Sky, claiming second place at the 2011 Vuelta — when reigning champion Nibali finished only seventh.
It is perhaps one reason, not to mention stunning performances on the climbs up to Aix 3 Domaines and Ventoux at last year’s Tour, that Froome has been dogged by media questions about doping, whereas Nibali has been relatively spared such annoyances.
The Italian’s performance at this Tour has also been consistently, yet not dramatically, better than the competition.
He never lost a single second on any stage to any of his overall rivals.
As he himself said: “Every day I’ve taken a few seconds, 20 seconds here, 30 seconds there, maybe a minute and that’s been important in building my lead.”
He has gradually pulled away from the field rather than blitzing them in a single demonstration of his superiority. It has made Nibali perhaps the most credible Tour winner since the darkest days of doping.
But what now remains to be seen is whether or not the Shark will have the same bite in 12 months time when Froome, Contador and Quintana will all be lining up to knock him from his perch, not to mention improving young French guns such as Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet.