Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Doimo will ride into Madrid this afternoon to be crowned the winner of the 75th anniversary edition of the Vuelta after Ezequiel Mosquera of Xacobeo-Galicia put in a Herculean effort to win Stage 20 on the Bola del Mundo but failed to escape from the Sicilian, who now holds a 41-second lead over the Spanish rider.
After yesterday’s epic stage in which Mosquera attacked on the Bola del Mundo, briefly dropping the Italian before the latter dug in to set up a mano a mano battle that continued all the way to the summit, Nibali, pictured below, said: “I still can’t believe that I’m winning the Vuelta. This is a very important victory. I’m entering the small circle of the winners of the Grand Tours, this is childhood dream come true.”
The 25-year-old explained that he had received encouragement from his team leader at Liquigas-Doimo, winner of this year’s Giro d’Italia in which Nibali finished third after being called up as a late replacement for the suspended Franco Pellizotti.
“I’ve exchanged some messages with Ivan Basso in the past few days,” he revealed. “He told me to stay calm because he was seeing on TV that I was pedalling well. In fact, everything was going exactly as I wanted."
Nibali will become only the fifth Italian winner of the Vuelta, and joins some exalted company including Giovanni Battaglin and Felice Gimondi, but the last win by one of his compatriot’s came in 1990, courtesy of Marco Giovannetti.
“Twenty years later, it was time for an Italian to bring the red jersey back to Italy,” stated Nibali, but he acknowledged that the home nation had made him work for his victory. “The Spanish riders have been really strong here and they’ve made my life complicated,” he insisted.
Reflecting on yesterday’s decisive stage, the Sicilian said “I knew the final three kilometres were the most difficult ones. When Mosquera accelerated the first time, I set my pace as steady as I could, I also kept some strength for the finale and that’s why I never lost control of the situation and I even managed to come across to him and save my red jersey.”
As for his plans for 2011, Nibali is in two minds about whether to race in the Tour de France or defend his Vuelta title, but the Giro d’Italia is already penciled in. “At the Tour de France, there is Alberto Contador. He’s the number 1 rider for stage races, he has won them all."
Nibali continued: "It’s very difficult to envisage beating him but hopefully one day I’ll be able to fight side by side with him. I’m not sure if I’ll do Giro-Tour or Giro-Vuelta next year. It’s difficult to do Giro-Tour because there’s not much time for recovering in between.”
For now, however, the Liquigas-Doimo rider, who comes from Messina, is happy to bask in the glow of his victory. “My intention is to enjoy this moment I’m having now. Today is one of the greatest days of my life as a cyclist.”
Nibali has achieved his Vuelta success without winning a single stage, as Alberton Contador did when winning July’s Tou de France, and Basso took only one individual stage – Liquigas-Doimo also won the team time trial – during the Giro.
Mosquera, however, insisted that he took satisfaction from clinching the first stage win of his career, despite the top spot in the general classification eluding him. “This means a lot for me. Until today, I was always fighting for places of honor. When you get close, it makes you fight harder or sometimes you think it may never arrive.”
The 34-year-old comes from Galicia – the regional government sponsors his team, although with that arrangement coming to an end at conclusion of the season, the outfit is set to fold – and took encouragement from the support yesterday of fans from his part of Spain.
“There were so many Gallegos and so much support for me, it really made a difference,” he maintained. “To come close to winning the Vuelta is the biggest thing for a Spanish rider. I am very, very satisfied. Maybe I regret losing a few seconds on stages like Xorret or Jaén. Maybe I should have attacked a little sooner today, but you have to have a lot of respect for Bola del Mundo.”
Mosquera, who had revealed earlier this week that he had suffered sleepless nights due to the anticipation of yesterday’s crucial stage, continued: “Everyone came into the finale a little scared. You cannot live with regrets. You have just to keep fighting and look for opportunities. I gave everything I could. I couldn’t give anything else. Maybe I needed one more gear.”
He added: “I am satisfied because I won the stage that had been escaping me so far in the Vuelta. And to finish on the podium behind Nibali is nothing to be ashamed of. Every year you get older the more you have to train and struggle even more. This year, I really didn’t get into shape that I wanted until late into the spring. OK, I am old so I have to keep fighting. The last part of this season has been the best of my career.”
Meanwhile, David Moncoutié of Cofidis confirmed his place at the top of the mountains classification for the second year running. The 35-year-old, pictured below del Mundo, can be forgiven for being perhaps the only man who smiled his way up the ascent, secure as he was in the knowledge that his only rival for the prize, Serafin Martinez of Xacobeo-Galicia, had failed to get into the day's break to try and close the eight-point gap between the pair.
The one piece of unfinished business this afternoon is the points competition, where Mark Cavendish (shown below winning in Salamanca on Thursday) leads Tyler Farrar by 12 points. The 85-kilometre stage starts in San Sebastián de los Reyes and ends with a dozen laps of a 5.7km finishing circuit in the centre of Madrid.
That circuit includes two intermediate sprints where Farrar will be looking to eat into the Manxman's advantage, but if he fails to do so, then the Garmin-Transitions rider will have to win and hope that Cavendish finishes fifth or worse.
Should the American not win the stage, then due to the fact that gaps between the number of points awarded are greater in the top places, he's need Cavendish to fare much worse - if Farrar came third, for example, the HTC-Columbia rider would need to come 13th or lower.
It's unlikely that anyone who has seen Cavendish's performances on a similar last day circuit on the Champs-Elysees in the last two editions of the Tour de France would bet on that happening.
All pictures copyright Unipublic/Graham Watson
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.