You wouldn’t expect a veteran of 27 Grand Tours - and a winner of all three - to be puffing quite as much as Vincenzo Nibali is on the finish line of the Queen Stage of the 2023 event.
But he is. “Ah, it is a nice experience but today I am very tired. Samuele [former podium-finisher Samuele Porro, his partner] helped me a lot. I am very glad to be here at the finish of this stage. For me, it is a good experience so far, I am really enjoying it.” A day on the loamy slopes of Groenlandberg should be both tiring and enjoyable.
As one of the most successful road stage racers of all time, Nibali’s inclusion in the 2023 Absa Cape Epic field had on- and off-road tongues wagging faster than his legendary descending skills. How would the Shark of Messina cope with the harsh terrain, the relentless up-and down nature of the Absa Cape Epic stages and the African heat? Six stages in, the answer is clear - exceptionally well, in spite of taking a relative beating on the 99km stage into Lourensford, running in the top ten overall at the age of 38.
“It is very different in some ways, the technical parts, I feel like a child learning how to ride a bicycle sometimes. But the riding, the racing is just as hard. Every day is long and hard, in a different way from the road. The days are shorter, but very, very tough.”
This is not Nibali’s first visit to South Africa, but it is the first time he has seen what the Western Cape really has to offer, scenery-wise. “Molto bello! I came here without knowing what to expect, it has been a nice surprise. For me it has been a very nice experience, because it is my first time at the Absa Cape Epic. And also, the people are very nice. The organisation is perfect, and the other riders are very friendly. Everyone makes you feel welcome.”
The obvious comparison has to be made to the three-week Grand Tours at which Nibali excelled. “It is quite a difference from the Giro, or the Tour. There you have a team to look after everything, now you and your partner must work together and help each other. And we need to be very balanced, we must be the same speed on the technical, on the climbs, on the flats. But in a Grand Tour you have specialists for each of those to help you achieve your best performance.”
So a little like two team leaders riding together, or two domestiques? “Maybe the domestiques; it is hard work, we must always be thinking of the other rider, what they need, whether we are going too fast or too slow. How to finish the best that we can.”
Will the Shark of Messina be back for more? “Eh, we aren’t finished here yet, so I can’t tell you that. But I am enjoying myself.” The Absa Cape Epic will decide, as his heart rate heads back to normal. Few can resist a return match with The Untamed African Mountain Bike Race.