It’s hard to imagine a more unpretentious figure than Giovanna Nibali. She spends most days quietly in her video and stationery shop in downtown Messina, a city of nearly 250,000 inhabitants. In fact, it is only when you venture into the back of her shop that you get any sense of a link to professional cycling. But there, propped against the wall in the corner, is a framed yellow jersey from her son’s 2014 Tour de France victory. One does not get the sense that Giovanna follows the sport of cycling avidly. But if you ask her kindly enough, she just might break out a few old scrapbooks that recount the making of a champion: her son Vincenzo.

Words/image: James Startt

So, was it love at first sight for Vincenzo and the bicycle? Yeah, pretty much. And he never stopped! All day long it seemed he would be on his bike. All the kids in town were about football. But not Vincenzo. That is a bit strange for an Italian boy, but he had no interest in soccer. He just wanted to be on his bike. First he started going out with his father, and soon enough he was out on his own. For a little while he did do some track-and-field at his school. And he was good, winning some medals in races. But it didn’t last long, because Vincenzo just wanted to be on his bicycle.

When did you think for the first time that Vincenzo might really have a special talent for cycling? Well, like I said, he started going on rides with his father. Now riding around Messina is hard because there are a lot of hills, but soon enough Vincenzo was dropping everyone. Finally, someone encouraged him to sign up for a race. He got second place in his first race and he soon won a lot of races here in Sicily and in southern Italian races when he was just 14 or 15. Then, when he was 16, he moved to Tuscany to race for a big development team run by [well-known coach] Carlo Franceschi, and he won his first race there. At that point I really understood that he had big talent. Carlo really believed in Vincenzo and, in fact, he transformed the team from a junior team to an elite team just so that Vincenzo could get into the bigger races as he matured.

When you see Vincenzo racing in the Giro d’Italia or Tour de France, do you see any characteristics from the little Vincenzo you knew as a boy here in Messina? For me, he is always a small boy! But the one thing I notice is that he is always looking around in a race. And he has always been like that, always going 100 percent, always in movement.

What I love about watching Vincenzo race is that he is always looking to exploit every situation. He is so aware of everything that is going on in the race…. Yeah, he is like a cat chasing a mouse, just always ready to pounce! To tell you the truth, Vincenzo had so much energy and was so competitive that, as a young schoolboy, he was always getting into fights. Nothing would stop him. But one thing did. When he was about 10, one day his father was so frustrated that he took Vincenzo’s bike and actually cut it in half with a saw. Oh, Vincenzo cried. He was devastated. But his father just said: “When you learn to behave, I will get you a new bike.” That changed him!

From issue 66. Buy it here.