• "I said to myself, 'I have to go alone if I'm going to do anything'." (LaPresse)Source: LaPresse
Composure under the highest pressure has benefitted Vincenzo Nibali throughout his decade-and-a-half pro career - to the point that he must now be considered the most complete rider around, writes Anthony Tan.
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Cycling Central
19 Mar 2018 - 11:41 AM  UPDATED 19 Mar 2018 - 12:31 PM

"As a young child we aspire to a lot of things in life, and watching the Tour de France in 1991 and seeing Indurain tear everyone to pieces planted a small seed in my head that continued to grow."

Like the 13-year-old Cadel Evans, I'm certain Vincenzo Nibali at a similar age also experienced a lightbulb moment that led to a seed being planted within. A seed that has now blossomed, and, like a good flower should, continues to reproduce, season after season.

Nibali claims a classic Milan-San Remo win
Vincenzo Nibali timed his move to perfection to claim the Milan-San Remo as he just held off the sprint specialists over 294km.

Throughout his career Evans often referenced his doubters. It seemed to have the desired effect of spurring him on to realise his childhood dream, rhetoric that continued right up to the day he was crowned champion of the 2011 Tour.

"It's been 20 years since I watched my very first Tour de France on TV and (back then) I said I'd like to win it," Evans told reporters in Paris, moments after crossing the finishing line on the world's most famous boulevard, the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.

"A lot of people didn't believe it. But some very good people believed in me, from my very first coach right through to the ones who turned me to the road."

The one most instrumental in changing his then mountain-bike-or-bust mindset was the late Aldo Sassi, co-founder of the Mapei training centre: a high-tech athlete training laboratory on the outskirts of Milan that catered to aspiring as well as fully fledged professional cyclists. (When I went there myself in 1999, the guy who drew the short straw to look after yours truly, now BMC Racing head doctor Max Testa, told me in no uncertain terms that "only riders with VO2s over 80 become pros at Mapei". My sporting aspirations pretty much ended then and there; I soon realised the only thing I had in common with Cadel was the first Tour we watched on TV. Two years later, I started a career in journalism with Cyclingnews.)

As far as a complete palmarès goes, the Silician, despite having half as many wins, wipes the floor.

"Aldo Sassi always believed in me, more than I did myself," said a tearful Evans the day before he became the first Australian to win the Tour, having blitzed the final time trial in Grenoble to overtake maillot jaune incumbent, Andy Schleck of Luxembourg. Sassi died after a long battle with a malignant brain tumour on 13 December 2010, aged 51.

"He said to me at one point last year, 'I'm sure you can win a Grand Tour and I hope for you it is the Tour de France, because it's biggest and most prestigious. If you do that, you'll become the most complete rider of your generation.'"

Following his history-making achievement, Evans would win only two more stage races: the Critérium International in 2012 and two years later, the Giro del Trentino. But having won the 2009 road world championships, a few kilometres away from Sassi's home as well as his own in Mendrisio at the time, as well as races like La Flèche Wallonne (2010), the Tour de Romandie (2006, '10) and Tirreno-Adriatico (2011), from 24 July 2011, he was considered one of, if not the most, complete riders of his era.

If public opinion counts for anything that mantle now seems to be taken by three-time world champion, Peter Sagan. Yes, he's ridiculously talented; yes, he's versatile; yes, he's a winner; yes, he's won an awful lot. And eh, ain't he cool?!

But out of the current active riders, is he the most complete?

Besides his troika of rainbow jerseys and five TdF maillots verts the Slovakian has to his credit: eight and four stages of the Tour and Vuelta a España, respectively; one Ronde van Vlaanderen and Kuurne–Brussels–Kuurne; two wins in Gent-Wevelgem and two GPs de Quebec. As far as stage races go he can 'only' claim the Tour de Pologne (2011) and Tour of California (2015).

Contrast that with Nibali whose popularity, unlike the aforementioned global PR cycling phenom, appears to encompass only Italy and a smattering of diehard fans elsewhere. But as far as a complete palmarès goes, for mine, the Silician, despite having half as many wins, wipes the floor.

Fourteen years pro versus nine for Sagan. Overall victory in all Grand Tours including 14 individual stage wins across all three (somewhat curiously, Sagan, despite his familiarity with and affection for Italy, is yet to ride the Giro). After Saturday in San Remo, Lo Squalo has three Monuments (including two at Lombardia) in the bag versus one for the Slovak. There's also his GC triumphs at Tirreno-Adriatico (2012, '13) and the Tour of Oman (2016).

Perhaps it's unfair to compare the pair, since both are very different riders and often have different objectives. That said, however, in Nibali's 21 race days so far this year he has crossed paths with Sagan nine times (Strade Bianche, Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan-San Remo), so it's not like they're chalk and cheese. It could be argued there's as many races that suit both their characteristics as races that suit only one or the other, though when it comes to the former their method is slightly different, since Sagan can rely on his sprint and Nibali has no choice but to attack. "Peter is always unpredictable, and a rider like me has to arrive alone to win," Nibali said after his victory in La Classicissima. "On past form, if I finish in the company of riders like Alaphilippe, Kwiatkowski or Gilbert, I always finish second.

"I was working for the team and when I attacked I said to myself, 'I have to go alone if I'm going to do anything'. It was a good move, made with a clear head, but also with the heart, because to arrive alone to the finish line after all those kilometres and all that rain, it took a lot of determination."

In this vein Nibali is much more like Evans than Sagan; as far as one-day races go the choice is to attack or lose.

Unfortunately for Evans he only found his sangfroid after his victory in Mendrisio. Nibali, as demonstrated throughout his career, has owned it his whole life. They don't call him The Shark for nothing.