Cycling has “become a niche sport” in Italy

The last timeIl canto degli Italiani, the Italian national anthem sounded at the end of a Grand Tour, it was May 29, 2016. In Turin, Vincenzo Nibali won the second Giro of his career, after winning a Vuelta (2010) and a Tour de France (2014). The chance to see the Sicilian in pink at the end of the 105and Giro d’Italia (May 6 to 29) is weak, but it remains a reference for the tifosi, the local media and a good part of the peloton.

That is “the only great athlete to appear on the Italian cycling scene since 2008”, recalls Matteo Monaco, secretary of the Italian Association for the History of Sport (SISS). However, in a country that has produced several 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 of Italy stomping on his benches »† The television news is interrupted and the live broadcast of the event starts 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 perceptionsums up Mr Monaco. Until then, cycling and its champions were part of the collective imagination. Today it has become a niche sport, although in all Italian races there are always thousands of fans on the streets. †

Atypical champion, easily recognizable with his shaved head, his protruding ears and his earring in his left ear, Marco Pantani had ended a thirty-three year Italian deficit at the Tour de France in 1998. Better yet, he had double-signed a Giro-Grande Boucle, which only six riders had achieved before him. A year later, he was banned from the Giro the day before the finish when he dominated the event. In question: a blood test showing a hematocrit value above the allowable limit. The episode will herald the end of his career. In 2004, he was found dead in a hotel room after an overdose.

The Impact of the Pantani Affair

“There is no doubt that the ‘Pantani affair’ has undermined and changed popular sentiment towards cycling in Italycontinues Matteo Monaco. Phrases like “cyclists are all drug addicts” are becoming more common in bars. † Other cases, such as Riccardo Ricco’s, will further fuel the general public’s mistrust.

“The construction of a sporting myth is often done before the champion himself”, argues the secretary of the SISS. Damiano Cunego paid the price: when he won the Giro, a few months after the Pirate’s disappearance, the Italians named him his successor. Despite good results, the stakeholder will struggle to meet expectations.

Why was the story never about Vincenzo Nibali? Matteo Moanco offers several explanations. First the Sicilian’s lack of histrionicity, when Mario Pantani overplayed the slightest action: removing his bandana before sprinting or tearing off his diamond nose piercing during a duel with Russian Pavel Tonkov… His regularity then – “His career has been characterized by the idea of ​​constant progression, not an immediate sporting boom that we see under [Tadej] pogacar, [Peter] sagan or [Remco] Evenepoel”, proposes the secretary of the SISS.

Competition, finally. The element is perhaps the most decisive: “All the Italian cyclists who became legends had equally strong opponents: Bartali-Coppi, Saronni-Moser, Cipollini-Zabel, then Armstrong and Ullrich before Pantani. † Despite his successes – four Grand Tours and three Classics – Nibali has always been a divisive athlete: “On the one hand, those who said he was a phenomenon, and on the other, those who said he only won because of the absence of the strongest riders. †

‘The perception of the cyclist’s heroism has been lost’

Beyond the champion culture, “the perception of the ‘heroism’ of the cyclist, which in the past made the greatness of this sport, has also been lost”, emphasizes Mr Monaco. During the Tour de France 1998, the 15and stage between Grenoble and Les Deux-Alpes had been epic. In the pouring rain, Marco Pantani had seized power in favor of race favorite Jan Ullrich, victim of a horrific failure.

This day had “has been reported in Italian newspapers as a ‘tragenda’ – a mixture of legend and tragedy”† Eight years later, when Vincenzo Nibali caught more than four minutes in the snow on his immediate general classification rivals at the 2016 Giro, only cycling fans cheered.

Perhaps we should see there a consequence of an evolution of cycling, whose actors are today “seem now to be pawns in the hands of their managers, the children of a computer-studied strategy” rather than by instinct and direct challenge from man to man asks Mr. Monaco. Who thinks that? “to rekindle the passion, a cyclist has to emerge from stage races, maybe a little daring, who knows how to stir people’s minds”.

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