PARIS – As a teenager, Vincenzo Nibali uprooted himself from his home in Sicily to head for Tuscany – and a career on a bike.
Off to join a cycling program and move in with another family, Nibali left behind the video and photo shop of his father, a cycling fan, where the boy whiled away many hours watching footage of riders like Italian greats Felice Gimoni, Giuseppi Saronni and Francesco Moser.
He left behind his grandfather, an Italian who once immigrated to Australia then returned to Sicily to build a big house. Nibali reportedly said he cannot really speak much with his proud grandfather about his Tour de France these days: He cries too much.
I have made a lot of sacrifices, he said. I left my family when I was 15 years old.
Those sacrifices paid off in full Sunday, when the boy from Messina ascended the Tour winner’s podium after an opportunistic and savvy ride over three weeks to earn the most prized honor in professional road cycling on the Champs-Elysées.
Humble and serene, Nibali has given Italy what some call the antithesis of its last Tour champion: flashy and flamboyant Marco Pantini – the Pirate – who was celebrated as a national hero after his 1998 victory. Pantani’s life came to a tragic end in 2004 in a drug overdose. Nibali watched and respected his predecessor as a rider.
I grew up watching Pantani and many other riders on TV, Nibali said at one of the many post-race news conferences he attended during this Tour. My father was a big fan and used to tape races. He also had documentaries and the one I liked best was of Francesco Moser, because of his innovative style.
Nibali wore the leader’s yellow jersey for 19 of the Tour’s 21 stages.
His style is soft-spoken, unflappable – even in the face of inevitable questions about doping, which pummeled this sport’s image long before Lance Armstrong dealt arguably the most devastating blow: His admission that he doped on way to his seven Tour victories, which were later stripped from him.
Don’t compare me to Armstrong, Nibali said, calling himself a flag-bearer of anti-doping.
Nibali joins five other riders who won all of the sport’s biggest races: the Spanish Vuelta, the Giro d’Italia and the Tour.
Nibali won four stages. He finished 7 minutes, 37 seconds ahead of runner-up Jean-Christophe Peraud.