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Italian cycling insiders are bullish that a new generation will emerge to fill the giant hole left by the recently retired Vincenzo Nibali at the top of the peloton.
One of the few riders to hold the distinction of the “grand tour triple crown” as winner of all three grand tours, the 37-year-old Nibali is the last of Italy’s big winners.
Despite Nibali’s exit, UAE Team Emirates sport director Fabio Baldato says Italy’s cycling future and its place in the WorldTour peloton will be secure.
“We don’t need to panic,” Baldato told VeloNews. “The Italian cyclists are coming, they are young, they are good. We don’t need to be afraid.”
Baldato — who was part of Italy’s golden generation in the 1990s that included the likes of Marco Pantani, Mario Cipollini and Michele Bartoli among many others — admitted Nibali will be missed, but that Italian cycling packs plenty of promising talent for the future.
“Nibali was a guarantee, and now need to develop the young Italian talent,” Baldato said. “Italian cycling is spread across the peloton. We don’t have the big Italian teams as we did before, but Italian cycling is strong.”
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Despite Baldato’s hard-wired optimism, the future can appear bleak.
Riders such as Olympic medalist Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers), Tour of Flanders winner Alberto Bettiol (EF Education-EasyPost), and Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) are the leading lights of today’s generation, but it’s only “Top Ganna” who seems to move the media needle.
Yet none of those are going to win the pink jersey or challenge for the Tour de France each July.
Italy desperately needs a big winner.
“Of course, the Giro will miss Vincenzo. He will leave a big hole,” said Giro d’Italia director Mauro Vegni earlier this season. “He is a rider who can move the passion of the fans, and with the way he races in an attacking style, that will be impossible to replace.”
Giro owners RCS Sport rode the wave of Nibali’s popularity for more than a decade, when the Sicilian emerged in the late 2000s as the heir apparent to the likes of Marco Pantani and Gilberto Simoni.
With a lack of charismatic stars coming up inside the Italian ranks, Vegni said Nibali was a once-in-a-generation rider who will be hard to replace.
“Vincenzo is a rider who is able to excite the fans, not only with the way he races but the way he carries himself,” Vegni said. “There is a problem now in Italian cycling because right now the Giro will not have a big favorite for the fans to get behind.”
Italy missing a WorldTour team
Italian cycling’s been quietly struggling for years.
The closure of the last Italian-sponsored WorldTour teams with Liquigas in 2014 and Lampre in 2016 left one cycling’s most traditional hotbeds suddenly absent at the top of the peloton.
Italy used to boast several WorldTour-level teams in the peloton, with Mercatone Uno, Fassa Bortolo, Polti, Saeco, Mapei, and Liquigas carrying national pride across the international calendar.
While there are still three second-tier pro teams in Italy, the absence of a WorldTour Italian team doesn’t help.
“The 1990s were a different time,” Baldato said. “It was a different economy in Italy, and to sponsor a cycling team was big publicity for Italian business. That is one of the problems we have in Italy.
“We do not have a WorldTour team, but the Italian movement in cycling is still very big,” he said. “We are hoping some big group can come and invest in Italian cycling.”
As Baldato pointed out, Italian racing DNA is spread widely across the WorldTour both with riders and staffers.
Astana-Qazaqstan featured no less than 12 Italian riders in 2022, while Italian sport directors and managers play critical roles on such teams as UAE Team Emirates, Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl, Trek-Segafredo, and Ineos Grenadiers.
Another problem is that many of Italy’s top riders are well into their 30s.
Domenico Pozzovivo, Diego Ulissi, Matteo Trentin, Giacomo Nizzolo, Damiano Caruso and Elia Viviani are all getting long in the tooth.
The likely retirement of 2021 Paris-Roubaix winner Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Victorious) following his near-fatal cardiac arrest in March only exacerbates Italy’s coming drought.
Who can fill Nibali’s shoes?
There are some promising young riders coming up, but the question is whether any of these young riders can develop into legitimate grand tour contenders. A few names pop out.
The 21-year-old Andrea Piccolo (EF Education-EasyPost), and 2021 third-place finisher at the Tour de l’Avenir and Italian national champion Filippo Zana, 23, who joins BikeExchange-Jayco next season, both harbor stage race potential.
Antonio Tiberi, 21, on Trek-Segafredo is also being talked up for his all-round capabilities. The 2019 U23 world champion Samuele Battistella (Astana-Qazaqstan) is also seen as an untapped talent.
Jonathan Milan (Bahrain-Victorious), 22, who was part of the Olympic gold medal team pursuit squad at the Tokyo Olympics, kicked to his first pro wins at the recent CRO Race.
Alessandro Covi (UAE Team Emirates), 24, hit his first wins in 2022, but they are both more of an attacker/sprinter.
If the “Baby Giro” Giro Ciclistico d’Italia is the ultimate measuring stick of future Italian grand tour success, Italy doesn’t rank. Its last national winner is Mattia Cattaneo (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl) in 2011.
Vegni admitted it will be a problem for the Giro in the coming years if the Italian grand tour doesn’t have a big Italian star to cater to hometown fans.
“Just like the French would like to see a French rider win the Tour de France, it’s normal that the Giro would like to see a big Italian figure,” Vegni said. “For the Giro organizers, of course, it would be better for us if we could have a big Italian star coming soon.”
Nibali won two editions of the Giro, one Vuelta a España, and yellow jersey at the Tour de France, along with such monuments as Milan-San Remo and Il Lombardia during the arc of his career.
For Baldato, who is now helping Tadej Pogačar rewrite cycling history at UAE Team Emirates, Italian cycling is a constant even if there are some headwinds right now.
“Italy always has good riders,” Baldato said. “That will never change. I believe we will see some big champions from this next generation.”