Such nicknames have a long tradition, they bring a touch of character and caricature as well as a sense of place.
First Nibali’s name explained. He’s from Messina in Sicily, a coastal city that gives its name to the Strait of Messina, Stretto di Messina, the narrow channel of sea that separates Sicily from the Italian mainland. The waters do include sharks including the great white shark. Nibali got the name because of his origins but also because of the way he races, “always on the attack” says his website.
Such names are a rarity. Jean-Christophe Péraud doesn’t have a nickname beyond “Jicé”, short for J-C when he could be “The Engineer from Lyon” and there’s nothing for Thibaut Pinot so far.
These names hark back to the past and a the era before TV coverage. Journalists needed to craft characters for their columnar chronicles. Some were obvious, a village butcher who turned out to be handy on a bike became “The Butcher of Amiens”. French newspaper Le Monde had a piece on famous riders from the past and their names the other day. It cited Philippe Thys as the first example, the Belgian won the Tour three times and was nicknamed “The Basset”. He sat so low on the bike he looked like the breed of dog with short legs.
The Eagle of Toledo has to be the best name ever, it’s poetic, predatory and evocative and all with a sense of place. Federico Bahamontes soared in the mountains, hence the Eagle suggests and obviously he was from Toledo. Cycling fans might know little about Toledo in central Spain but many know it has an eagle. Fellow climber Charly Gaul was “The Angel of the Mountains” while the Lion of Flanders has been applied to several, almost a crown passed from one to another.
Five time Tour winner Jacques Anquetil was called “Maître Jacques” or Master Jacques, a term that implied respect and supremacy. Anquetil was also a stylist on the bike and off it, a dashing figure from a photogenic age. It’s since become a mini-meme on Twitter where OPQS manager Brian Holm describes cool and stylish things that Maître Jacques might approve of. However it’s also the name of a range of meat products in France.
Some names are plain wrong. Louison Bobet was called the Baker of Saint-Méen but he never worked as a baker, it was his father’s job. Laurent Fignon was Le Professeur but was never studious, instead wearing small glasses was enough to make him seem professorial. He was never Le Professeur de Paris either because if he was from the French capital, he was from a sleepy suburb. Bernard Hinault’s “badger” nickname is awkward, once a term of affection it was then spun as a story of the stocky animal that fights hard when cornered but the mere act of having to explain this ruins the term.
A lot of these names were given by journalists but not all of them. As Daniel Friebe explains in Eddy Merckx, The Cannibal, the Belgian champion’s nickname was not the invention of a writer or broadcaster, nor even a rival eaten alive during a race… it came from a little girl.
A shark, a Lion of Flanders or an Eagle sits at the top of the food chain while the Badger’s half hidden, half cute. Multiple world champion Paolo Bettini was Il Grillo, the cricket because if he was small he had a big jump. The insect comparison isn’t too flattering and there have been some more modest names over the years, especially for the climbers because of their small size. Michael Rasmussen was The Chicken. Climber Andrea Noe was so thin some called him The Ghost. Luis Herrera was called Jardinerito, the Little Gardener. Domenico Pozzovivo is La Pulce di Pollicoro, the Flea of Pollicoro while Robert Millar was once labelled The Maggot although fortunately the name never stuck.
Others embrace the nicknames, Alberto Contador’s El Pistolero label has been branded by his management and he signs off a race victory with fake pistol shot. Joaquim Rodriguez likes his Purito nickname too.
Was it better in the past?
Froomey, Jicé and Gerro. The current trend of matey abbreviations is lamentable. These are names from the team bus and the echelon, race radio call signs that are abbreviated so they can be said often or quickly. It’s the opposite of the more poetic terms, for example L’Equipe briefly labelled Bradley Wiggins as The Heron of Kilburn in reference to his long legs – a term that’s been used before, in the 1960s the same paper likened Tour winner Roger Pingeon to a migrating heron for his rangy limbs. He was also called “Big Stork” for the same look as well as Le Plombier, the Plumber, because of his training. Pingeon’s variety of nicknames is revealing because it shows how a rider could have several names during his career and it’s only with time that one label sticks. Taken Fausto Coppi, also called Airone, Heron but in time Il Campionissimo won out.
As we see with Nibali the old nicknames aren’t from a bygone era. André Greipel is The Gorilla, sometimes The Gorilla of Rostock and there are plenty of others in the peloton, think the Manx Missile or the Condor of Varsseveld. Soaring birds of prey are a popular term, José Rujano’s retirement freed up the name El Condor for Nairo Quintana almost in the way a retiring football player surrenders the number on their shirt. Bjarne Riis was the Eagle of Herning and it became a brand, the eagle motif has appeared on the team jerseys of Saxo Bank since the Dane took up management.
A sense of place
Place can be used even when there’s no nickname. Regional association can invoke terroir, like cheese or wine, the rider reflects their origins. Gilberto Simoni grew up in the shadow of the Dolomites which lets us explain his climbing prowess and mule-like stubbornness. Ellen van Dijk grew up on eijer and against crosswinds which explains her power. Lance Armstrong’s brash ways were explained by the Texan tag. Every Colombian is built for a high mountain pass. By now you see how these associations cross from labels to lazy stereotypes. A lot of this is poetic baloney, a rider is the product of their inherited DNA rather than their region. But such pickiness doesn’t help with story-telling, especially in past eras when newspapers were practically the only way to follow the sport and characters had to be introduced to the public in the same way a writer inserts them into a novel.
Some nicknames vanish. The French media have stopped called Chris Froome le Kenyan blanc, “the White Kenyan” and never mind the nationality, it always seems awkward to say the least to identify a rider by their skin tone. Nobody calls Daniel Teklahaimanot “the black Eritrean” or labels Kévin Reza “the black Frenchman”. I’m also unsure about Tony Martin’s Der Panzerwagen nickname, yes it evokes unstoppable power but also the invasion vehicle of choice for the Nazis.
Once a device to bring character to a rider in early race reports the tradition of nicknames lives on and helps followers of the sport identify a rider and often indicates where they are from. We might spot a trend for abbreviations, for example Geraint Thomas as “G” rather than, say, the Panther of Cardiff. But this isn’t new, Laurent Fignon had Julot, better known as Pascal Jules and so on.
Only a few riders get these names and they’re often not by choice. Pozzovivo might not like being called a flea but he should be proud that he’s worthy of a nickname. Most riders struggle to get their own name printed and broadcast yet alone a nickname.