Former Tour de France champion Vincenzo Nibali sits casually, with a wry smile in front of the Bahrain Merida stand at the World Travel Market in London.
Image credit: Camille Dupont
The Italian cyclist would rather be enjoying his time off now that the season has come to a close. Instead, he is eye candy in front of an ‘Experience Arabia’ poster, a very different role than usual for the five-time Grand Tour winner.
The 34-year-old, known for his grace on the bike, is also charming off it. He welcomes every passer-by with the same radiance, whether cycling fan or novice. But, he admits he wasn’t always so well-behaved.
“In school, I didn’t respect the rules. My father told me, ‘I know you like your bike so if you keep not following the rules I will cut it up.’ When I came home one day with bad grades, my father had kept his word and the bike was gone.”
It wasn’t all bad for Nibali though. “A month later I had improved my grades and I got my bike back,” he says, still a little relieved.
Leaving home and chasing dreams
Nibali’s father, Salvatore, was also a cyclist, once winning the Sicilian Championship. He and his wife, Giovanna, ran a movie rental shop on the island and quickly noticed the emerging talents of Vincenzo and his younger brother Antonio.
“My father was very happy when I started the sport as he loves cycling. I think my mother was also happy for me to go out too,” he says.
“When I stayed at home I’d just create problems but, when I was on the bike I’d be away and then come back too tired to create any issues.”
Vincenzo Nibali has won all three of Cycling's Grand Tours
In order to further his career, at the age of 16, Nibali moved away from his home in Messina, North East Sicily to Tuscany on the mainland to train and live with his sports director Carlo Franceschi.
“It was easy for me, it was my dream. When I started, all I wanted to do was just ride the Giro D’Italia one time.”
The decision paid off for the youngster, as he won the Italian Junior Road Race title in 2002 as well as a third-place finish in the UCI World Under 23 Time Trial Championships in 2004.
After signing for Italian team Liquigas in 2006, he started his first Giro one year later.
“When I got older my dreams changed. I suddenly wanted to be a Grand Tour winner.”
In 2010, Nibali finished first in the prestigious Vuelta a España thanks to consistent high placings in the mountains and time trials.
At the Giro D’Italia three years later, he outrode early favourite Sir Bradley Wiggins to win two stages and take the overall title.
And, in 2014, following retirements from Chris Froome and Alberto Contador, he won the Tour de France general classification by seven minutes and 52 seconds, the largest margin of victory for 17 years.
Image credit: Ciclismo Italia via Flickr
He remains the last non-British rider to have won the yellow jersey. But, none of these superb achievements is Nibali’s fondest.
“My favourite is definitely my first victory as a Grand Tour rider (at the 2008 Giro del Trentino). It’s not a big race, but it’s my first.”
When it comes to his impressive roster of wins though, it’s difficult to see where the current Bahrain Merida rider can go next.
“There're not many important races that I haven’t won”, Nibali jokes.
“The only one is probably the Olympics. The last games in Rio I attacked, it was 5km to go and I and one other rider crashed. We were ahead of the peloton and I could have got a medal.”
In addition to winning all three Grand Tours - the Tour De France, the Giro D’Italia and the Vuelta a España - in the last 24 months the Sicilian has picked up victories in two of the five Monument races. Cycling’s most prestigious one-day events.
“For sure I’d target the classics, especially the ones I haven’t won like Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the only one I wouldn’t go for is Paris - Roubaix. The conditions would have to be 100% for me. With the cobbles, it’s just too dangerous.”
As for the big question in Italian sport right now, whether he’ll ride in the Giro or the Tour next year - or even both - Nibali is nonchalant.
“I will decide my plans at the next training camp in December,” he says.
Inspiring the next generation
The two-time Italian Road Race Champion is proud of his Sicilian heritage, sponsoring the ASD Nibali Youth Cycling Team based in his hometown, Messina.
“(I always tell potential riders) the first thing to know is cycling is very difficult because you are alone. You either love cycling or you hate it.
“The second is if you love cycling you must respect cycling. The most important thing is to be patient, you can’t have everything immediately, you have to go step by step.
“Don’t give up. When it’s not a good day you must think tomorrow will be better, it’s life really.”
The team has had some success in developing talent on the island, but there has been heartbreak too. When Nibali won his second Giro D'Italia title in 2016, 14-year-old Rosario Costa was riding on a coastal road with his father and some friends when he was hit by a municipal rubbish truck and killed.
The 17-time Grand Tour stage winner, who regarded Costa as a 'Godson', was reportedly in tears when he was made aware. He took to Twitter at the time posting, "Unfortunately I’ve heard some sad news. RIP Rosario, there are no words. 1 minute’s silence."
The little shark of Messina
The Bluntnose sixgill shark migrates through the Strait of Messina
So how does the former Astana team leader reflect on his illustrious career?
“It’s difficult to compare myself with the other greats of the sport whilst I’m still competing. I feel that there are many fans who love me though, and that’s what matters. For this reason, I’m happy.”
It is these supporters who have followed Nibali so devoutly - even being responsible for his famous nickname - ‘the shark of Messina’.
“Before the 2004 World Championships in Verona, the fans made 10 feet flags of sharks because where I’m from, the Strait of Messina, there are actually sharks there.
“It’s true!” he laughs. “But they are only small sharks. Maybe I should be called the little shark of Messina.”
And with that, the interview concludes as Nibali reluctantly slips back into trying to sell the Bahrain capital, Manama, as the next big holiday destination to passers-by.
To find out more about Vincenzo Nibali, check out his Twitter, Facebook or Instagram accounts.
Image credit: NOAA Ocean Explorer from USA - Sixgill Shark via Wikimedia Commons