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A country for old men?

01/10/2021

The great artists, it is said, see the world with the eyes of children. The great scientists retain their childlike curiosity. And the great athletes? They compete as they did in the school yard. A pattern is emerging, as if the price we pay for joining the adult world, with its responsiblities and repressions, its complicated, compromised pleasures, is too high. Alejandro Valverde, 41 and the oldest competitor at the 2021 Giro di Sicilia, rode yesterday’s stage with the magical lack of inhibition that distinguishes him. 

Max Richeze, 38 and the second oldest, played the kingmaker,  contributing to two stage wins by his young teammate Sebastián Molano, by unleashing him at the crucial moment.

And then there was Vincenzo Nibali. 37 in November, he was the third-oldest rider in the field, but no one was closer to childhood today. The kind of sporting success he has achieved as an adult – the adulation, the wealth – has the inevitable consequence of making a man had to reach and separating him from his community, his old friends. Sooner or later, too many people have your mobile number and it has to go. It takes a deeply rooted personality to retain your simplicity. Vincenzo is such a person.

“To win on the roads I knew as a child is a dream. I knew 95% of the route today. I didn’t know that side of the climb very well, but I knew the descent. Even so, I even missed a bend on the way down, one I knew.”

By then, one of the best descenders in the sport could be sure that the stage and the race overall were his. It is just in those moments, in life as in sport, that things can fall apart. 

Valverde, the overnight race leader, confessed after the stage that, when Nibali attacked on the final 9.5 km climb up to the Sciara di Scorciavacca, he believed the race situation was under control.

But Nibali, inspired, held it together: “I heard on the radio that someone” – Romain Bardet – “was chasing behind, but couldn’t follow, so my pace was good. Then, on the top, on the descent, I just tried to pedal all the way. To see my childhood friends and my cousins here was incredible. Inside, I’m in emotional turmoil. It is very hard to frame in words.”

But life seems to go both ways: the great athletes – and no one who saw his Milano Sanremo win in 2018, or that wonderful stage win in Sheffield in the 2014 Tour de France, wouuld deny that Nibali is one of them – seem always to have been unusually mature as children, have mature heads on young shoulders, as the saying goes. As though they, and the great artists and scientists, held those two principles, the spontaneity of the child and the experience of the adult, in a delicate balance, calling on each as circumstances demand. 

At a rest-day press conference during the 2014 Tour, Vincenzo shrewdy observed that sports science gets you to the top of the final climb, but it is sports artistry that takes you from tthere to victory. Age, youth, science, art: whatever the elements, they seem to have been melded together in Etna’s volcanic heat and conferrred on Vincenzo Nibali, who used all today to win the stage and the Giro of his childhood.

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