Shark Vincenzo Nibali hoping to make a splash in possibly final season at Bahrain-Merida

Matt Jones - Editor 14:17 18/02/2019
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Vincenzo Nibali is entering his third season with Bahrain-Merida, but his future with the team is unclear.

Vincenzo Nibali admits he is desperate to “win something important again” but denies he has underachieved at Bahrain-Merida as he tackles the 2019 cycling season amid speculation his future lies away from the Middle East outfit.

The Italian icon is among the most successful riders in cycling history – one of only seven to win the sport’s holy grail triple crown of Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana.

The 34-year-old sits joint seventh in terms of most Grand Tour victories, having won four (the Giro twice and the Tour de France and Vuelta once each). Only 10 more men have raced to greater success.

His last title came when he lifted a second Giro title in 2016 but, having left Astana at the end of that season to join the new venture in Bahrain – where he was to be the undisputed leader of a team built around him as he plotted further Grand Tour triumph, things have not gone exactly to plan.

He was forced to pull out of Le Tour last year following a crash during the ascent on Stage 12’s iconic Alpe d’Huez after spectator interference – it was the first time he had suffered such a fate in 18 outings at one of the big three races.

He also then went on to finish a disappointing 59th in the overall General Classification at the Vuelta – his worst performance at a Grand Tour since debuting at the Giro in 2007.

Nibali had never previously finished outside the top-10 in four outings at the famous Spanish race – although he had suffered the ignominy of being disqualified in 2015 after video emerged of him holding on to his team car when attempting to rejoin the peloton following a crash on Stage 2.

Nibali pumps his fists in triumph after winning the Milan-San Remo last season.

Nibali pumps his fists in triumph after winning the Milan-San Remo last season.

It tied in to Nibali suffering one of the most fruitless campaigns of his career last year – a maiden and coveted Milan-San Remo triumph a rare bright spot.

But even though the man known as Lo Squalo (the Shark) has been swimming in murkier and shallow waters in terms of controversy and success in recent years, he does not feel under pressure to deliver in 2019 – when he will attempt the Giro-Tour double for just a third time.

“It’s clear that I would like to win something important again, but I run without pressure because I love my job and it makes me happy,” the Messina-born man tells Sport360 when asked if he’d be content to retire with four Grand Tour wins.

“I’m happy with my career and if I could choose, I’d like to try to win the world championships and the Olympics in Tokyo.”

He is also keen to point out that while he has enjoyed little success as he enters his third year with Bahrain-Merida, he recorded podium finishes during 2017’s – his debut season with his current team – Giro (third) and Vuelta (second).

“I did not win, but I think the third place in the Giro d’Italia and the second place at the Vuelta in 2017 are not to be thrown away.”

Nibali has been ever so close on multiple occasions to adding to his four Grand Tour crowns – he has six podium finishes outside of his victories, as well as three more top-10 placings.

The great Eddy Merckx is the most grandiose of Grand Tour riders – he sits alone on 11 overall titles. Bernard Hinault, Jacques Anquetil, Fausto Coppi, Miguel Indurain, Alberto Contador and Chris Froome – who became the seventh to win all three after glory at the Giro last year – sit ahead of him, while a fifth success would draw Nibali level with compatriots Gino Bartali, Alfredo Binda and Felice Gimondi.

The inaugural UAE Tour – taking place in the UAE from February 24 to March 2 – will be the venue for the Shark of the Strait’s (another nickname) 2019 debut, although Nibali admits his Bahrain-Merida future is less that straightforward

“It’s early to say, we will see,” said a rider who was linked with a switch to Froome’s Team Sky at the end of 2018 before the British-based organisation revealed in December that Sky was withdrawing its sponsorship at the end of the 2019 season.

“How can I say it now? I continue to pedal then we’ll see.”

Nibali’s agent was contacted by Sky team principal Sir Dave Brailsford while Trek-Segafredo are also believed to have offered him terms for 2020, with the future for the Shark at Bahrain also plunged into further confusion with a contract extension being put on hold by talks between the team and Formula One giants McLaren coming on board as a partner this year.

“We are in the third year and, looking back, I can only say that we have grown so much that we have managed to enter, last season, in the top-10 of the WorldTour teams,” added Nibali, switching focus to what he and Bahrain have been able to achieve – they finished 14th in the team standings on debut in 2017 before leaping to seventh last year.

“This year important riders arrived such as the time trial world champion Rohan Dennis, young Dylan Teuns and expert Damiano Caruso, and this will help us to grow again.”

Nibali will add the 2019 Giro-Tour double to his 2008 (he finished 11th in Italy and 20th overall in France) and 2016 (he lifted a second Giro crown and came 30th at Le Tour) attempts.

“After the Giro I will participate in the Tour de France. As usual, I will try to do my best knowing that the double is not easy,” he added.

“Every year, I run two Grand Tours, usually the Giro and Vuelta. This year I wanted to change.

“My first goal for 2019 is the Giro d’Italia. I will start the season at the UAE Tour and then I will go to Italy to Strade Bianche, Tirreno-Adriatico and San-Remo.

“The Milan-San Remo victory (last year) was the best moment of my season. The other two important events were the Tour and the World Championships but the serious crash on the Alp d’Huez ended up compromising everything.”

The Shark will be hoping things go more swimmingly for him in 2019.

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