Vuelta a España unsung heroes: Antonio Nibali talks brotherhood, fatherhood, and keeping the Sicilian spirit strong

Antonio Nibali is the embodiment of Sicilian family values. He speaks about living in reference to his brother Vincenzo and life away from his nine-month-old daughter.

Photo: JoJo Harper

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Throughout the Vuelta a España, VeloNews will be talking to some of the unsung heroes in the peloton – those riders who battle on each day without the recognition the major GC favorites or sprint stars receive.

There’s a shark in the water at this year’s Vuelta a España. But don’t worry – this one’s a “baby shark.”

Antonio Nibali has long been burdened with a referential nickname that could imply inferiority to his illustrious elder brother Vincenzo. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Antonio told VeloNews that there’s no fraternal rivalry or bickering with his big brother, just a bond that has – perhaps ironically – gotten stronger the more Vincenzo has garnered the world’s attention.

“We got very close, both physically and as brothers (when we got older)– even though he was the rising star of Italian cycling and I was only cultivating my dream of becoming a professional,” Antonio told VeloNews.

“Since we’ve been on a team together, the relationship has become even closer, so much so that we often share a room.”

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Just like any stereotyped Italian dynasty, family bonds run rich through the 28-year-old Antonio’s blood.

Antonio’s teammates at Trek-Segafredo know the Sicilian climber by the nickname Il Pesciolino – “the little fish.” Despite being framed in reference to the brother eight years his senior, Nibali seems grateful that a shared passion and profession has offered the opportunity for the siblings to grow closer.

“The big age difference was clearly felt when we were younger,” Antonio said. “When I started racing, when I was eight, Vincenzo was already living away in Tuscany. He was already the talent that everyone was talking about.

“We didn’t share much time together in Sicily – before I moved to Tuscany (when Vincenzo also lived there) I would see him only two to three times a year when he went back to Sicily.”

Antonio turned pro in 2014 and joined Bahrain-Merida along with his brother three years later. The Nibalis have raced alongside each other since, and transferred as a pair to Trek-Segafredo last winter.

Vincenzo isn’t at this year’s Vuelta, allowing Antonio to step clear of the shadow of his brother and the swell of attention that he garners. But Vincenzo’s presence or absence doesn’t appear to faze Antonio. It seems that over the years, he’s become accustomed to allowing his brother the limelight – whether he’s earned it or not.

“When we were both at home, we trained together. The spirit of competition among cyclists is always there, but among brothers, it increases a bit. Sprints, short climbs – we would always challenge each other,” Antonio said. “Vincenzo is always as you see him in the race: competitive. And if by chance he loses, he asks to repeat until he wins.”

On fatherhood, family, and the Sicilian spirit

Antonio Nibali
Antonio is racing in Spain but his heart is at home. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Nibali is riding his second-ever Vuelta this year as his U.S.-Italian squad looks to send Giulio Ciccone to the podium.

There’s a heavy Italian presence within Trek-Segafredo’s Vuelta team this summer. Ciccone is poised in eighth overall as he hunts for a top spot on GC, and Gianluca Brambilla has the potential to light up the race in the mountains.

Although both Ciccone and Brambilla raced the Giro this spring, Antonio missed out. While Nibali is relishing his return to Spanish soil, there’s a twinge of regret that he’s not on home roads in the race for the Maglia Rosa.

“Obviously before a grand tour you always start with the highest goals – in my case to win a stage or make an important placement,” he said.

“The Vuelta is an important grand tour, but clearly the Giro is different for us Italians … it’s special. I always remember when we watched the Giro as a family. It was a ritual, and when my father couldn’t follow it live, he would record it and we would watch it together in the evening.”

The pull of the Giro is just a hint at Nibali’s tie with his homeland and the family he has there.

This Vuelta is Antonio’s first grand tour away from his recently born daughter Mariasole. Nibali’s wife and his nine-month-old child are at the forefront of his mind as he races through this nerve-riddled opening week in Spain.

“Mariasole has been the best gift life could give me. Every time I think of her, I smile. She is my joy,” Nibali said. “She is now beginning to show signs of her character. Every day is a discovery. The name (loosely translating as ‘Maria of the sun’ – ed.) was almost a premonition. She is so happy, smiling, sunny.”

The many fathers within the full-time peloton have to tread an emotional and professional tightrope as they balance race and family lives. Antonio is no exception. By the end of this year’s Vuelta, he will have amassed nearly 60 race days – the best part of two months – away from his nine-month-old girl.

“Being away is challenging, but priceless,” he said. “A child teaches you to become more patient, sometimes more thoughtful even as a rider. I’ve never been the type to be reckless on a bike, one of those who takes big risks, but now, if I can, I’m staying away from danger even more.”

Like Vincenzo, Antonio moved away from his Sicilian birthplace at an early age as he pursued the bike-racing dream.

Despite spending most of his adult life away from his native island to make Tusany his home, Antonio remains as Sicilian as arancini and cannoli. Bikes are his career and passion, but Antonio’s wife, daughter, and family back home are the ultimate priority.

“My bond with Sicily is always strong, even if the pandemic and racing has made it complicated to go there in the past two years,” he said.

“In Sicily, there is my whole family, relatives near and far. Vincenzo and I left it, almost forced, to cultivate our dream of cycling. But we always keep our Sicilian spirit strong: having the sun inside.”

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.