In Italy cycling “has become a niche sport”

The last timeThe Song of the Italians, the Italian national anthem, played at the end of a Grand Tour, was on 29 May 2016. In Turin, Vincenzo Nibali won the second Giro of his career, after having won a Vuelta (2010) and a Tour de France (2014) . The probability of seeing the Sicilian in pink at the end of the 105And The Giro d’Italia (from 6 to 29 May) is weak, but it remains a point of reference for the fans, the local media and a large part of the group.

This is “the only great athlete to emerge on the Italian cycling scene since 2008”, recalls Matteo Monaco, secretary of the Italian Society of the History of Sport (SISS). However, in a country that has given birth to more cycling champions and made them icons, Vincenzo Nibali has never achieved this status, he explains.

In 2000, when Marco Pantani, the “Pirate”, attacked in the last alpine stage of the Tour de France, in Morzine (Haute-Savoie), “All Italy stepping on his sofas “. The news is interrupted and the live broadcast of the event begins three hours in advance. Fourteen years later, when Nibali triumphed on the Champs-Elysées, outside the circle of cycling enthusiasts, “Popular interest is practically nil”.

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“After Pantani’s death [en 2004]something has changed in our perceptionsummarizes Mr. Monaco. Until then, cycling and its champions were part of the collective imagination. Today it has become a niche sport, even if there are always thousands of fans on the street at all the Italian races. “

Atypical champion, easily recognizable with a shaved head, protruding ears and earring in his left ear, Marco Pantani had put an end, in 1998, to thirty-three years of Italian shortage at the Tour de France. Better still, he had signed a Giro-Grande Boucle double, which only six riders before him had scored. A year later he was excluded from the Giro, the day before the finish line, when he dominated the event. In question: a blood test that reveals a hematocrit level above the authorized limit. The episode will precipitate the end of his career. In 2004 he was found dead in a hotel room following an overdose.

The impact of the Pantani “deal”

“There is no doubt that the” Pantani affair “has undermined and altered popular sentiment towards cycling in Italycontinues Matteo Monaco. Phrases such as “cyclists are all drug addicts” have become more common in bars. “ Other cases, such as that of Riccardo Ricco, will arouse a little more distrust of the general public.

“The construction of a sporting legend often happens before the champion himself”, says the secretary of SISS. Damiano Cunego paid the price: when he won the Giro, a few months after the Pirate’s death, the Italians nicknamed him his successor. The person concerned will have difficulty meeting expectations despite good results.

Why has history never taken Vincenzo Nibali? Matteo Moanco offers several explanations. First the Sicilian’s lack of histrionics, when Mario Pantani exaggerated with the slightest action: taking off the bandana before snapping or tearing the diamond nose piercing during a duel with the Russian Pavel Tonkov … His regularity then- “His career has been marked by the idea of ​​constant progression, and not by an immediate sporting boom that we observe between [Tadej] Pogacar, [Peter] Sagan or [Remco] Evenepoel “, anticipates the secretary of SISS.

Competition, finally. The element can be the most decisive: “All the Italian cyclists who have become legend have had equally strong opponents: Bartali-Coppi, Saronni-Moser, Cipollini-Zabel, then Armstrong and Ullrich for Pantani. ” Despite his successes – four Grand Tours and three Classics – Nibali has always been an athlete who divides: “On the one hand, those who said he was a phenomenon, and on the other, those who said they won only because of the absence of the strongest cyclists. “

“The perception of the cyclist’s heroism has been lost”

Beyond the culture of champions, “The perception of the ‘heroism’ of the cyclist, who made the greatness of this sport in the past, has also been lost”, underlines Mr. Monaco. During the 1998 Tour de France, on 15And the stage between Grenoble and Les Deux-Alpes had been epic. Under the pouring rain, Marco Pantani had taken power in favor of the race favorite, Jan Ullrich, who suffered a terrible failure.

This day had “it was reported by the Italian newspapers as a ‘tragedy’ – a mixture of legend and tragedy”. Eight years later, when at the 2016 Giro Vincenzo Nibali caught more than four minutes in the snow on direct rivals for the general classification, only the cycling enthusiasts rejoiced.

Perhaps we should see there a consequence of an evolution of cycling, whose actors today “now they look like pawns in the hands of their managers, children of a strategy studied by computers rather than instinct and direct challenge from man to man asks Mr. Monaco. Who thinks it “to rekindle the passion, a cyclist must come out of stage races, perhaps a little daring, who knows how to inflame souls”.

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