Vincenzo Nibali's Giro d'Italia victory has ensured 2013 will be one he long remembers. Could he be about to add to that with success at the Vuelta a Espana?
Currently leading the 2013 Vuelta a Espana, Vincenzo Nibali's place in cycling history was cemented the moment he won the 2010 edition—his first Grand Tour.
Winning a major stage race is worthy of such permanent recognition given the difficulty of doing so. In 2013, the Italian has gone about expanding on that legacy with some style.
Nibali's Giro d'Italia win in May proved he is more than a one-hit wonder in his sport's biggest races. It also went a long way in satisfying his compatriots he was a worthy champion to carry on the successful lineage created by Italy's greatest cyclists.
The 28-year-old has a little way to go in getting anywhere near matching the achievements of legendary predecessors Gino Bartali, Fausto Coppi and Felice Gimondi.
In the meantime, feats like his Giro-sealing attack in snowy, freezing conditions on Tre Cime di Lavaredo will endear him to contemporary fans wanting an Italian hero of their own.
As of Stage 13, this year's Vuelta has not seen any actions as comprehensive as that from Nibali (individually speaking anyway), but his Astana team did win the opening team time trial.
His fourth place in Stage 11's individual time trial saw him recapture the leader's red jersey with a ride superior to that of the other contenders—primarily previous wearer Chris Horner.
The American flexed his muscles a stage earlier, catching his fellow general classification hopefuls off guard with a tremendous attack up the concluding Alto de Hazallanas climb. It was somewhat telling Nibali alone was able to reduce the deficit in pursuit.
Coupled with his fine time-trial work, it hinted at the Shark being a class above those rivaling him for honors in Spain this year.
That notion will begin to be tested with Saturday's grueling traverse of three mountains (including the hors catégorie Port de Envalira) before they even reach the steep summit finish in Andorra.
Along with RadioShack's Horner, Nicolas Roche (Saxo-Tinkoff) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) are all within a minute of Nibali. Joaquim Rodriguez of Katusha is two minutes behind—though the Spaniard showed at the Tour de France his ability to turn a race around, working his way to a commendable third place.
Between the Vuelta know-how of the Spanish pair, and the admirable resilience of the other duo, it is a formidable group. Nibali will have done extremely well if he has seen off more than one of its members by Tuesday's rest day (not to mention staying in contention himself over a mighty tough few days).
Victory in the Vuelta would not only enhance the Sicilian's increasingly prestigious palmares, it would enhance the luster of a rivalry poised to define the sport over the coming year.
Like Nibali, Tour de France winner Chris Froome has targeted this month's World Championships in Florence as the perfect conclusion to a glorious 2013. Others are in with a strong chance on the hilly route, but the performances of these two will be among the race's most captivating story lines.
Nibali has had mixed experiences riding against Froome and the Team Sky machine.
At the 2012 Tour, the latter rode to second place in support of eventual winner Bradley Wiggins. Nibali's valiant attempts to provide competition to the Sky pair proved to be no match for their numerical advantage in the mountains (and Wiggins' superior time trialing).
This year's Tirreno-Adriatico race saw the Italian pip Froome to first place. In a year when the Briton has won almost every other event he has entered, Nibali was able to get one over him on his home roads.
As arguably the strongest of the sport's GC contenders right now, Nibali and Froome's paths will cross again in the near future. Astana's Giuseppe Martinelli confirmed to Velo News last month that his rider was planning to challenge Froome at next year's Tour de France.
The likes of Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador will be among those looking to ensure they do not completely have their own way.
Yet having hit their respective strides at the same time, so long as they maintain their form of the last two seasons, Froome and Nibali could be about to take their rivalry to the next level.
It could well be the one both are remembered for.
Italian cycling has longed for a legitimate competitor for the sport's biggest prizes—at least one not overshadowed by doping issues, as Ivan Basso has been and the tragic Marco Pantani was.
In the exciting and seemingly-improving Nibali, they may have found him.