When I were a lad

By Daniel Friebe, Features editor | Friday, February 8, 2008 4.19pm

The premise was simple and, we thought, innocuous: get Gilberto Simoni and a sample of the Diquigiovanni team's other golden oldies around a table and shoot the breeze about how professional cycling has changed – and possibly deteriorated – over the past fifteen years or so.

Seven minutes in, Gilberto Simoni decided he had better things to do, but the tape kept rolling. After a vain and frankly hilarious attempt to bring his diva back, Diquigiovanni boss Gianni Savio even insisted on stepping in as a substitute.

Here, we print the full transcript of the brief encounter with Simoni, dissected and psycho-analysed in the Procycling Season's Preview issue, which hit the UK newsstand this week. The three riders making up the round table were 35-year-old Daniele Nardello, 37-year-old Gabriele Missaglia and 34-year-old Ruslan Ivanov.

Here's the interview in its surreal entirety.

Procycling: I don't know if you saw the interview Mirko Celestino gave La Gazzetta dello Sport a couple of weeks ago.

Ruslan Ivanov: Where he said that young riders have no respect any more?

Procycling: Exactly. And I wanted to kick off by asking you guys what you thought.

Gabriele Missaglia: Certainly when I turned pro there was a bit more respect for, and actually a bit more fear of, the older riders.

Ivanov: Back then, we were definitely more respectful, at least in the first year.

Missaglia: Yeah, you came in on tip-toes. These days a lot of amateurs come in and they already assume they're better than some of the pros in the team.

Daniele Nardello: They already think they're campioni.

Missaglia: They're often coming off excellent results as amateurs and juniors, and they don't realize they have to start again from scratch as neo-pros. Your only concern when you turn pro should be learning.

Nardello: Times have changed. It's true that, once upon a time, when a youngster turned pro, he had a bit more time to find his bearings. Now teams want results straight away. But it is also true that young riders now don't conduct themselves like we used to.

Procycling: How does that manifest itself? Is it, for a example, a case of you asking them to get water bottles and them refusing. Or is it the tone of their voice when they speak to you?

Missaglia: With the youngsters these days, you get the impression that they hear you giving them advice, but they don't really listen. They don't really take it on board like we used to.

Procycling: Gilberto?

Gilberto Simoni: I think the problem lies elsewhere. The problem is with teams who don't respect...

Missaglia: ...the hierarchy.

Simoni: Not even the hierarchy. They don't respect what someone's achieved in their career. Over the past few years, countless riders have turned pro and then had to give up within a year or two. The notion of the real professional cyclist has disappeared; these days, guys are offered the chance to ride their bike for a living, and they try to make the most of it for the year or two or three that they're given. It's not a respectable "trade" anymore. You have to look after yourself straight away because otherwise no-one will consider you when the sponsor pulls out and the team folds at the end of the year.

Maybe that's what Celestino means: it's not the youngsters who don't respect their elders, it's the teams that don't respect a career like his. As a result, youngsters come in and think they've got a year to make or break their career so they do whatever it takes.

Nardello: They used to give you time to develop.

Simoni: There was always a turnover of riders, through signings and retirements, but now it's just a jungle.

Nardello: Gilberto's right: there's no such thing as a real pro anymore.

Procycling: What do you mean by that?

Nardello: The ProTour was supposed to create an elite category, with the Professional and Continental categories like a first and second division. The reality is that no-one really knows any more if Continental teams are amateurs or pros...

Simoni: And even in some ProTour teams, there are riders who wouldn't even be good cyclo-sportif riders in Italy. I'm serious. So what's the point of the ProTour? It's like casting a net out to seeing what you catch...Is that what it's supposed to be? Or do we want a proper hierarchy based on sport, competition, results? If we don't want that then let's not call it sport. Let's just call it a big shambles.

Procycling: Do you feel that your generation has all been tarred with the same brush, that teams now compulsively look for young riders in a desperate attempt to distance themselves from cycling's recent past? Yours is considered a contaminated generation...

Simoni: Contaminated generation? It's people like Manolo Saiz who really contaminated our sport. It's people like Doctor Fuentes...I don't want to name one or two other riders, who really piss me off. It's better I don't talk about them.

Procycling: So you guys don't envy young riders who are turning pro now?

Nardello: No.

Simoni: Me neither.

Procycling: But surely you agree that riders who turn pro this year will come into a healthier environment than in the early 1990s, when you all started out.

Nardello: No, I think it was healthier when we turned pro. Obviously I don't mean "healthy" vis-à-vis doping, but in general. There was more respect not only amongst riders but between riders and directeur sportifs.

Simoni: There was hierarchy based on merit, based on results. And that's what sport's about...Half of the riders in the ProTour now have to prostitute themselves to stay there. There are no guarantees for anyone, especially not the sponsors. I can't wait to see how this will all end, because we can't go on like this.

No, I don't envy the up-and-coming generation. I carry on because of the good times I've known. But then I find myself in a situation like I was in last Sunday, when I was skiing with my daughter and the dope-testers come and tell me that I have to get off the piste and leave my wife and daughter up there on their own. What kind of life is that? You tell me if that's an enviable position to be in.

Missaglia: If they tried that in other sports, I'm not sure how far they'd get.

Ivanov: Ivan Quaranta's good mates with the motorcyclist Marco Melandri, and Ivan told me that, once when they tried to do tests at a MotoGP race, the pilots all threatened to go on strike. We all agree that there has to be testing, but...

Nardello: We've gone from one excess to another. It's right that there are tests, but not like this. We don't have a private life any more. People have tested positive, OK, but...

Simoni: And why's that? Because in the jungle, there are monkeys, there are crocodiles, there are giraffes.

Procycling: The emphasis at the moment seems to be on repression, rather than prevention.

Simoni: And why's that? Who encourages doping? The people above us, that's who. Once upon a time, we got three year contracts. Now it's one. You don't even know what races you're going to do...If you're not in the ProTour, you're living off whatever crumbs you get thrown. To me, not recognizing a rider's career, and only considering him as good as his last race, is incentivizing doping. Anyway, I don't want to talk about doping. I'm done. Ciao.

Gianni Savio: Wait a second.

Simoni: No. I don't want to.

And with that, Simoni gets up and slinks off to join a gathering on the other side of the restaurant. Savio remonstrates gently, but is rebuffed. After thirty seconds of general, stunned silence, we decide against pursuing Simoni and opt instead to carry on the interview.

Gilberto simoni and gianni savio

Procycling: Well, guys, we were talking about how the pro's life has deteriorated. Some things must have improved, though, surely.

Missaglia: I preferred it as it was. I was in love with cycling as it was then. This isn't my kind of cycling now. I'm still passionate, but when you used to go to races, you did it with a smile on your face.

Nardello: In the managers' eyes, we're all dispensable, all interchangeable. All we are is puppets.

Missaglia: And the worst thing is that we have no input in the choices that are made. Never. We arrive at the start of a season and there is a whole raft of new tests we have to do. It's a circus, we're providing the entertainment, and we have absolutely no say in what goes on.

Procycling: OK, but I think you riders realize that your lack of unity is partly to blame for that.

Missaglia: Absolutely. Footballers, for example, are a lot more united. In our sport there's a lot of don't-give-a-shitism. It's every man for himself. Historically I don't think there's ever been a strong riders' association.

Procycling: It can't all be bad. There must have been some progress in the last fifteen years.

Nardello: Yeah, things have moved on, like in training and technology. Some things progress with time, others regress.

Missaglia: And even in terms of training and technology, things haven't necessarily improved exponentially. I, for example, am one of those riders who trains a lot on "feel", but you see young riders now who are completely lost without their heart-rate monitor or their SRM. I'm fairly sure those guys don't know their body as well as I know mine.

Savio: That's where technology goes mad. Heart-rate monitors are useful, but riders mustn't become dependent on them.

Missaglia: I've known riders who get dropped for no other reason than their heart-rate monitor tells them they're in the wrong zone.

Savio: A lot of the time it's probably best not to have a heart-rate monitor in races, from a psychological point of view...It's like everything in life: you need to find a balance.

Procycling: Changing topic slightly, what is it, as riders, that makes you feel like you're knocking on a bit?

Nardello: I've never felt old. OK, sometimes you're riding with 20 year olds, and you do a quick calculation, but I never actually feel physically old compared to them.

Missaglia: I'm the same. It's only when I look around me in the peloton and hardly recognize a face that it occurs to me. Or maybe when I hear the stuff they talk about...

Nardello: Physically, I just need to train a bit more to find my form. But my stamina's better.

Missaglia: Same for me. And I'm mentally stronger. You grow just like you do in life. I wish you could combine the hunger of youth with the experience you acquire with age.

Savio: I've always believed that enthusiasm was vital as well. To my mind, you can consider a rider finished – and I mean finished – the second he runs out of enthusiasm. I've met riders to talk about joining my team and I've seen it in their eyes: to them, going training or to a race is like clocking it at the factory every morning.

Missaglia: If you wake up and feel like you don't want to go out on your bike, it's time to stop.

Procycling: You say you don't feel old, but on those days when the legs are a bit stiff, or don't feel too good, is there a tendency to think: "Bugger, the years are finally catching up with me"?

Missaglia: On the contrary. Over the past few years, practically every time I've got home after training, I've though to myself: "Blimey, I still feel just as good as I used to."

Nardello: You have days when your legs feel like wood whether you're young or old.

Savio: I know from my time playing football that your physical fitness doesn't fall off a cliff; your sensations just change quite subtly, and, as Gabriele says, it takes you longer to hit peak fitness. When you've found that form, though, your body forgets how old you are.

Missaglia: I think what puts paid to a lot of guys as they get older is the drain of being away from home and their families.

Savio: And maybe, maybe, you lose some of that impulsiveness you had when you were younger, especially in cycling, but maybe less so in football. I'm not talking about fear, because if you're afraid, you don't go in for tackles or headers, and in cycling, you don't commit yourself on descents, but maybe you're less impulsive. I mean that, whereas once you went down a mountain like a kamikaze pilot, you might now weigh up the options and decide to take calculated risks. Am I right?

Missaglia, Ivanov and Nardello: Nod in approval.

Procycling: You may well start the Giro with seven out of nine riders over the age of 30. Is that a risk?

Savio: No, it's an advantage, because major tours are all about staying power and finding a psycho-physical balance. That balance is the crucial one for results in cycling, and it's one you strike pretty late on in a career. The rider who best achieves that balance is the one who makes the least number of mistakes, and it's usually that rider who wins the Giro. The Giro is a constant build-up of fatigue, tension and stress. With age, you learn to deal with those factors much better. At my age, I consider stress a friend. That's not just an off-the-cuff remark, it's a motto: stress is a friend who I live with every day, who follows me around.

[general laughter]

It's true. A friend, but not a girlfriend. I'd expect different things from a girlfriend.

Procycling: Moving swiftly on, let's have a final comment from everyone on Gilberto's chances at the Giro, providing of course that you're invited.

Savio: Before we start, a small premise: we're very, very confident that we'll be invited to the Giro, but it would be disrespectful to take it for granted. Having established that, I'd say we're also confident about Gilberto's chances.

Missaglia: I'm confident. I've already won one Giro with him, at Lampre in 2001, and I know that, when he gets something into his head...

Nardello: ....he doesn't get much wrong.

Ivanov: Last year he lost the Giro on the first day, in the team time trial.

Missaglia: He's also the kind of guy who can motivate you to give 50 per cent more.

Savio: It'll be different this year. In the past, every morning in the Giro, Marco Bellini and I would say, "the first rider that goes away has to be one of ours."

Missaglia: We used to ride to get our face on TV. Now we're riding to win the Giro.

Savio: And obviously there are pros and cons. People loved us because we were always on the attack. They come up to me at the start of races and say how much the Giro missed us last year. Now we have to look to get into breaks but with a different agenda... But we have a lot of belief. Ruslan, do you believe?

Ivanov: Absolutely.

Savio: Of course you do.

Procycling: It's unlikely that Di Luca can do another Giro like last year's, isn't it?

Savio: Listen, do you want me to give you a name? Gabriele knows who I'm going to say...[Missaglia nods]. Now if this guy, in his new team, or rather if his new team can manage him like we managed him for three years...

Nardello: Ah, Rujano.

Savio: You've got it: beware of Jose Rujano. He could have been in our team this year; he called me up, asking for a deal. We thought about it, but we decided to go for Simoni. You see this is a team of good riders and excellent men. You can decide to build a team around a big natural talent, but if the others can't rely on that rider, you'll go nowhere. If Caisse d'Epargne can get Rujano's head right, though, everyone had better fasten their seatbelts.

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