by Daniel Friebe in London


It was a day for Italians to rejoice, and there was a touching quaintness, an understated relish about the way Vincenzo Nibali’s countrymen greeted his performance in Sheffield.

stage3-5podcastTen years ago, after French, Italian was the dominant language in Tour press rooms. Only one foreign newspaper, La Gazzetta dello Sport, enjoyed the privilege of reserved seating alongside L’Equipe, Le Figaro and Agence France Presse’s plum pitches, equidistant from buffet and TV monitors. This year in Yorkshire only two Italian newspapers were even represented: La Gazzetta and Il Corriere della Sera. They were outnumbered by Norwegians, Danes and – of course, by about twenty to one – Brits.

Needless to say, then, the finisseur’s flourish that brought Nibali the maillot jaune in Sheffield was a welcome tonic, for the Italian press and public. More than victories, what Il Bel Paese‘s cycling scene desperately needs is a boost for its ailing self-esteem. The fact that Nibali crossed the line yesterday pointing to the Italian ‘tricolore’ flag on his jersey – albeit superimposed on Kazakh colours, skew-whiff, on its side, so much so that Nibali felt moved to point out he wasn’t Hungarian – was therefore both heartening and highly symbolic.

Nibali may not be the most charismatic of standard bearers but there is much to admire in both his riding and his personality. Yesterday was a neat summation: from that dashing, daring thrust in the final two kilometres to the moment in the mixed zone when a Spanish journalist bizarrely handed him a mobile phone, and Nibali proceeded to patiently answer questions in his best Sp-italian for the next five minutes.

In his ten years in the pro peloton, anyone who knows the Sicilian will tell you that he has not changed; the mild, easy-going manner and a guilelessness that spills into his racing persist as his defining traits. As of this spring he is a father, he earns rather more than a decade ago (€4million a year, say some reports), and his command of Italian’s troublesome subjunctive tense has improved with age, but in all other respects – and by all accounts – Nibali has remained mercifully immune to the transformative forces of fame.

Can he win the Tour? Most – and probably Nibali included – think it unlikely, but why not dare to dream? His coach, Paolo Slongo, told me yesterday that he weighs 1.5 kilograms less than he did at the 2013 Giro, which he dominated, and is producing an equal number of watts. Slongo also said that he “would be worried” if he was coaching Froome and Contador, both of whom appeared to hit top form at the Dauphiné. At that stage, Slongo says, Nibali had yet to even commence the high-intensity work whose fruits came so spectacularly to bear yesterday. You can see his power files from Sheffield, including that searing 500-watt final attack, here: http://www.srm.de/news/road-cycling/tour-de-france-stage-2/

We can conclude by saying that, whatever happens next, yesterday gave Italians and Italian cycling the perfect lift. Last night Nibali and Astana honoured the occasion with a tiramisù specially whipped up by the team’s Tuscan chef. The literal translation of tiramisù? You guessed it, “pick-me-up”.