Old school rider Vincenzo Nibali prepares for what could be his last Giro d’Italia | Tour of Italy

Jhe Giro d’Italia starts on Friday and Vincenzo Nibali is not going to win it. We should probably be clear about this from the start. Nibali won it twice before, in 2013 and 2016, but he was a younger, hungrier man.

He is now 37, hasn’t won a big-name race in three years and has missed much training time after catching Covid earlier in the year. When Nibali says his main goals are to ride for his Astana-Qazaqstan teammate Miguel Ángel López and hopefully win a few stages, he’s not bluffing.

And yet, we remember something else that Nibali said a few years ago, when he was on top of the world and the Italian press and public were asking why he wasn’t earning more. Nibali could have explained in great detail the hundreds of small wins and tiny lineups that must follow your path before you even think about winning a bike race, or the unique difficulties of winning when the whole peloton has put a target on your back. Instead, he simply said, “Being beaten is not the same as failing.”

Perhaps no sport conveys this lesson more beautifully than cycling, a sport of teamwork and selfless sacrifice, daring attacks and doomed heroism, where the first person to cross the line is often the most incidental detail of all. As he nears what may well be his last Grand Tour on home soil, few riders have embodied that maxim like Nibali, a man who, despite all he has won over the years – the three Grand Tours, 15 stages, two Giri di Lombardia, Milan-San Remo – will be remembered above all for how it made people feel.

This year the Giro will return to Sicily and to Nibali’s home town of Messina. For all of Italy‘s pedigree in the sport, Sicily has never really been cycling territory. Indeed, opportunities were so limited when Nibali was growing up there that at age 14 he was forced to leave home and move to Tuscany to try and become a professional pilot. And so these familiar roads and slopes now have a double meaning for him: a reminder not only of the life he made for himself, but of the life he left behind. After winning the Tour of Sicily last October, he collapsed in the arms of his teammates and cried like a child.

That emotion was never far from the surface, on or off the bike.

Vincenzo Nibali celebrates as he crosses the finish line at the end of stage 2 of the Tour de France in 2014, between York and Sheffield. Photograph: Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images

Perhaps that’s why the crowds, and especially the Italian crowds, respond to Nibali in a way that few cycling crowds anywhere do. This is a bruised and bruised sport, where heroes are summarily burned and dishonored, where no one is ever quite sure what they are seeing and therefore no one ever really knows how to feel. But whether in victory or defeat, people feel things about Nibali. They want to salute him and exalt him. They want to climb the mountains and catch the drops of sweat from his face. They want to believe.

For the Italian public, it also represents something else. Since Nibali’s last Giro victory in 2016, no Italian has won the race, either in the men’s or women’s version. A sixth straight overseas winner would be the country’s longest drought in history. The dominant language of the peloton is now English. The overwhelming flow of money into sport comes from outside Europe – Bahrain, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, the United States. Italy hasn’t had its own WorldTour-level team for six years and despite all of its rich heritage, that sense of decline – of a sport it once dominated but now belongs to everyone else – is hard to fathom. escape.

Nibali, for his part, has never been a fashionable runner. Yet, as young rivals begin to overtake him, as the sport becomes more professional and compartmentalized, there is sometimes a hint of nostalgia in it. He has often lamented the tyranny of data, the way some try to reduce this panorama of tactics and intuitions to a game of powers and power curves. For Nibali, the first and greatest marginal gain has always been racing spirit: the instinct not only to suffer and win, but also to honor and entertain.

Perhaps this is how Nibali won races so often that he had no reason to win. Uphill or downhill, on the cobblestones or on the open road, over six hours or three weeks: Nibali has always trusted his ability to read a race, to trace its twists and turns, his “desire to attack , of try without calculating”, as he once said. Milan-San Remo might not be quite the sprinter classic it was, but Nibali’s 2018 win, disappearing atop Poggio and holding onto his lead to the finish, still counts as one of his most sensational shocks.

The wins have started to dry up over the past two years. Yet at some point during this year’s Giro you can be sure that Nibali will launch an attack and you can be equally sure that the reception that greets him will be equal to anything heard in the three next weeks. It may even be on the slopes of Mount Etna, slopes that he descended alone in his childhood, but which live today in the sight of bicycles, a revolution that he largely inspired. Being defeated, you see, is not the same as failing.

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