The Giro d’Italia begins on Friday and Vincenzo Nibali is not going to win it. We should probably be clear about that at the outset. Nibali has won it twice before, in 2013 and 2016, but that was a younger and hungrier man.

Now he is 37, has not won a race of any real repute in three years and missed a big chunk of training time after catching Covid earlier in the year. When Nibali says his main goals are to ride for his Astana-Qazaqstan teammate Miguel Ángel López and hopefully pick up a couple of stages, he is not bluffing.

And yet one is reminded of something else Nibali said a few years back, when he was on top of the world and the Italian press and public were demanding why he was not winning more. Nibali could have explained in painstaking detail the hundreds of little victories and minuscule alignments that have to go your way before you can even think about winning a bike race, or the unique difficulties of prevailing when the entire peloton has put a target on your back. Instead he simply said: “To be beaten is not the same as failing.”

Perhaps no sport imparts that lesson more beautifully than cycling, a sport of teamwork and selfless sacrifices, of daring attacks and doomed heroism, where the first person over the line is often the most incidental detail of all. As he approaches what may well be his final Grand Tour on home soil, few riders have embodied that maxim quite like Nibali, a man who for all he has won over the years – all three Grand Tours, 15 stages, two Giri di Lombardia, Milan-San Remo – will be remembered above all for the way he made people feel.

This year the Giro will return to Sicily and Nibali’s home town of Messina. For all Italy’s pedigree in the sport, Sicily has never really been cycling territory. Indeed, so limited were the opportunities when Nibali was growing up there that, at 14, he was obliged to leave home and move to Tuscany to try to make it as a pro rider. And so these familiar roads and slopes have a dual meaning to him now: a reminder not just of the life he made for himself but the life he left behind. After winning the Tour of Sicily last October he collapsed into the arms of his teammates and cried like a child.

That emotion has never been far from the surface, on the bike or off it.

Vincenzo Nibali at the Tour de France in 2014
Vincenzo Nibali celebrates as he crosses the finish line at the end of stage 2 of the Tour de France in 2014, between York and Sheffield. Photograph: Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images

Perhaps this is why crowds, and particularly Italian crowds, respond to Nibali in a way few cycling crowds do anywhere. This is a bruised and bruising sport, one whose heroes are summarily burned and disgraced, where nobody is ever quite sure about what they are seeing and so nobody is ever quite sure how to feel. But whether in victory or defeat, people feel things about Nibali. They want to salute and exalt him. They want to sprint up mountains and catch the drops of sweat from his face. They want to believe.

For the Italian public he represents something else too. Since Nibali’s last Giro win in 2016 no Italian has won the race, either the male or female version. A sixth consecutive foreign winner would constitute the country’s longest drought in history. The dominant language of the peloton is now English. The overwhelming flow of money into the sport comes from outside Europe – Bahrain, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, the United States. Italy has not had its own WorldTour-level team for six years and for all its rich heritage that sensation of decline – of a sport it once dominated but which now belongs to everyone else – is hard to escape.

Nibali, for his part, has never been an in-my-day sort of rider. Even so, as younger rivals begin to surpass him, as the sport begins to professionalise and compartmentalise, one occasionally detects a hint of nostalgia there. Often he has lamented the tyranny of data, the way some people try to reduce this panorama of tactics and intuition to a game of wattages and power curves. For Nibali, the first and best marginal gain has always been racecraft: the instinct not just to suffer and win but to honour and entertain.

This, perhaps, is how Nibali so often won races he had no business whatsoever winning. On the climb or on the descent, on the cobbles or on the open road, over six hours or three weeks: Nibali always trusted in his ability to read a race, to plot its twists and its breaks, his “desire to attack, to try without calculating”, as he once put it. Milan-San Remo may not be quite the sprinters’ classic it once was, but Nibali’s victory in 2018, disappearing over the top of the Poggio and maintaining his lead all the way to the finish, still counts as one of its most sensational shocks.

The wins have begun to dry up over the last couple of years. Still, at some point during this year’s Giro you can be sure Nibali will launch an attack and you can be equally sure that the reception that greets it will be the equal of anything heard over the next three weeks. Perhaps it will even be on the slopes of Etna, the slopes he raced down alone as a child, but which are now alive with the sight of bikes, a revolution that in large part he inspired. To be beaten, you see, is not the same as failing.