Marco Pinotti: interview with Italian cycling's voice of reason

HTC-Highroad man on Armstrong, Simoni and the Giro

When Marco Pinotti (HTC-Highroad) finished 9th overall in last year’s Giro d’Italia, a discerning minority regarded the performance, and not Ivan Basso’s victory, as the most significant of the Corsa Rosa for Italian cycling. For years an unheralded journeyman, Pinotti had slowly risen to prominence in the latter part of the noughties as contemporaries like Ivan Basso and Danilo Di Luca’s stock fell, their reputations and palmarès sullied by doping scandals.

Few, though, would have batted an eyelid at Pinotti’s five Italian national time trial titles, his four days in the pink jersey in 2007 or indeed his 2010 Giro campaign were it not for the anti-doping convictions he wore so forthrightly on his sleeve. A graduate engineer, he also spoke eloquently about the environment, the challenge of attracting kids to cycling and just about any topic on which his views were solicited. He was, in short, a worthy spokesperson for a cycling nation that for years had placed its trust in men of straw.

Last December, on the eve of the 2011 season, we sat down with Pinotti to retrace his career path up to this point. With just ten days to go to the start of the Giro in Turin, we’re about to discover whether cycling’s voice of reason – and Pinotti’s palmarès – will continue on the same heartening upward curve.

A shorter, adapted version of this interview appeared in the April issue of Procycling magazine.

Cyclingnews: Marco, let’s go right back to the start. How and why did you start cycling?

Marco Pinotti: I started riding when I was 16. I was Matteo Algeri’s teammate. One summer I went round to his house to do homework and we went for a bike ride together. He said I was quite good, that I should give it a go and so on. Then I went to watch an Under 23 race that October. I liked it so I started looking for a team. I found out there was one in my village. So I joined and the next season I started racing.

Did cycling run in the family?

No one rode bikes in my family but my granddad always liked cycling and wanted me to race. He died in January 1992 and that was the year I started racing. He never saw me on a bike but I know he’d have been my biggest fan. I was lucky to be from an area where there’s a lot of passion for cycling, which really developed after the war with Gimondi. He was winning in the sixties, then the oil industry was in crisis in the 1970s and people started using bikes as a mode of transport. So it really grew, then in the 1980s and 1990s you got the ripple effect of Gimondi and that generation. There were lots of clubs in the area then. In the second half of the 1990s, there were something like 27 professionals living in Bergamo, some born there, some from other regions or countries. They were all guys who had started riding in the late 1980s. Now it’s very different; now there are only a handful of pros in Bergamo. I think there are two reasons why it’s changed so much. One is that people just don’t ride bikes as much any more. The other is that the foreigners aren’t coming to Bergamo any more. There’s still Kanstantin Siutsou, Alexander Kuchinski, one of the Efimkin brothers, but that’s about it. That’s because it’s no longer a good place to train. If a young rider, someone like Tejay Van Garderen, asks me to recommend a place to stay and train in Italy, I’d like to say Bergamo but I tell them to go somewhere else.

Kids of your generation in Italy grew up very aware of cycling and the top riders, didn’t they? Do you think that’s changed now?

Italian kids are maybe as aware of cycling as they once were but it’s changed. There are a lot fewer races. There are a lot fewer kids too, when you think of it. Now families have one, two kids on average. There’s more traffic, so parents don’t want their kids on the road. And there’s a lot of competition from other sports. I don’t know…On one hand, the Federation will tell you that the numbers are going up but those statistics are “doped” slightly by the numbers doing mountain biking, which is safer. Granfondos have really taken off too – but those are generally over 30s who are doing it for health reasons. And again, Bergamo’s not at the forefront of that trend.

Did you follow the Giro, the Tour?

Even before I started racing, I followed cycling. I followed all sport. I loved the Tour – with LeMond, Bugno, the back end of Hinault’s career. But I didn’t have any idols as such. I can remember the Fignon and LeMond Tour really well. But I wasn’t a “fan” of any one rider.

You were more focused on your academic work? You went on to get a degree in engineering….

I was certainly more focused on my school work than cycling at that time. I started racing but I didn’t intend to turn pro. That idea only really entered my head the year before I turned pro. I always had to juggle academic work with cycling, so I was always a bit pressed for time. I thought I’d turn pro for two or three years and see how things went, whether my body could take the strain. But I would never have expected a career like I’ve had, so long and successful.

How successful were you as an amateur?

I won races but I was never up there with Basso and Di Luca, those guys. I was always in a small amateur team. Now, and even more so then, there was a massive difference between the big, very organized teams who went on training camps and were basically run like pro teams, with riders who were effectively pros because they’d left school and cycling was all they did. I never went to training camps. I just used to race on a Saturday then go back to my parents’. So, I won races but small ones. I was never really in the set-up for the national team. Time trials were the only way for me to get noticed on a national level. Without those, I would never have gone beyond a few good results in regional races. There was a bit of a dearth of good time triallists so that’s where I slotted in. That’s what got my name out there on a national level

They were rough, unpleasant times in Italian amateur cycling….

Yep. Absolutely. I don’t know what it’s like now but it certainly wasn’t easy then. History has taught us that a lot of victories in that era were the fruit of illegal short-cuts and not talent.

Pinotti in his element

You came into contact with professional cycling for the first time immediately after the Festina affair, when you joined Polti as a stagiaire in August 1998…

I guess I was conscious of what was happening…but the Festina affair was a good thing because it opened up the possibility for change. It gave cycling a big jolt. When I turned pro, I heard mentalities were already changing. Or at least there was that hope. So that was the first jolt, which made people finally take the war on doping seriously.

But did you know what you were getting into?

No, I had no idea.

And you hadn’t seen team-mates or opponents doping with your own eyes?

No.

So it wasn’t as though you were going to races and your team-mates were filling the minibar with EPO…

No. I think if that was ever the case, it probably changed in 1998. After Festina there probably wasn’t much organized doping. It was individual riders making their own choices then. Perhaps the teams were closing their eyes to it but there was no organized doping. I don’t know what it was like before Festina. But something definitely changed there.

Had you already asked yourself the question of whether you would dope or not?

I was lucky that I was turning pro just because I could. I also had an education behind me. I turned pro in 1999 and graduated in 2000. My main aim was to get my engineering degree, then I was going to evaluate whether I could still race my bike. If I could survive with my values and not do too badly…I like racing my bike, so why not continue? Then when I got my degree I felt even more secure because I had something to fall back on. I even went for interviews after I graduated just to see how attractive the offers were. But they weren’t so attractive that I wouldn’t rather carry on racing.

And in fact, in those first two years, you…

Did nothing [laughs].

Well, yeah, you didn’t get amazing results but you did OK.

Yes, yeah. I mean, I turned pro and rode and finished the Tour in my first year. It was one of my biggest achievements in the first part of my career. It was the first Tour that Armstrong won. I finished and the directeur sportifs were all happy with me. 

But it must have been tough.

Well, I didn’t do anything exceptional but, honestly, I finished without ever having been on my knees. I was OK. It was actually a really good thing to do the Tour in my first year because I said to myself that was as hard as it could get. The level was high but the others also had two legs, just like me, and there I was with them. It was a good first experience of the Tour.

Your friend Matteo Algeri had bit more trouble than you adapting to the pro scene.

He did two and a half years. He was passionate but he had lots of physical problems which maybe came from overextending himself to get up to scratch. He’d eventually had enough.

What were your sporting highlights in those first couple of years?

Finishing the Tour in 1999, coming second in a stage in 2001… I was in a break with Rik Verbrugghe. That was the first time I really became aware of Jonathan Vaughters because that was the day he had to quit the race because his eye was swollen from a bee sting and he couldn’t take cortisone. I saw the photos in the paper the next day. I was second in that stage and I was fifth or sixth in the young riders’ classification. I was 30 or 40 minutes behind on general classification but still one of the best Under 25s. That was good for me because I was coming off a few physical problems. Even then I realized that I recovered pretty well. I might have been 50th overall in that Tour but I was in the top five young riders and that was having lost a bit of time in the flat stages. In the mountains I was in the top 40 or 50. I can remember the Alpe d’Huez stage that Armstrong won, when he bluffed Ullrich. I was in the first group of around 40 at the bottom of Alpe d’Huez. I can remember Armstrong bluffing, the penultimate climb…

The Glandon.

That’s it. There were a few hard sections and I could see Armstrong dropping back behind me. He didn’t look too bad but it seemed strange that he was there at the back of the group. There was Livingston on the front, then Ullrich…I can remember Telekom working the whole day. Then we descended, got to the foot of Alpe d’Huez and I got dropped. I can remember being puzzled when I saw him on the Glandon.

With hindsight and everything that’s happening now, what are your impressions of Armstrong?

When I rode the Tour in 1999 he was a source of inspiration. I was like a lot of other people. Looking back now….when he gave up the first time and L’Equipe published the article about his 1999 urine samples, it was a bit of a kick in the stomach.

You believed in him before that?

Here’s the thing [long hesitation]. As long as you don’t have proof, you always hope. I hoped. But there I thought, blimey, everything people said, the rumours…it was all confirmed, albeit not from a legal point of view. Now all I know, I read in the newspapers, and when I read about this investigation in the United States, I just think there’s no point now – the time to act was years ago.

Would context be any excuse? If one were to say, if he’s proven guilty, that plenty of other people were doping?

No, it’s not.

There’s an argument that he also dictated, created the context. He was the standard bearer for the sport. If he had sent out strong signals, would the context have changed?

OK, but it’s not the riders’ responsibility to send out signals. His job is to race his bike and win. Armstrong never tested positive. OK, there are those tests from 1999 but he was never convicted. What annoys me is the role the authorities played or didn’t play. A few months ago I read Paul Kimmage’s book, Rough Ride. As I read it, I was thinking, blimey, this was 1990! And if my memory serves me, Kimmage said that one of the reasons he was writing it was so that the UCI would finally see what was happening. He talked about how the riders all knew there would be no dope tests in the last stage of a major tour, so they took amphetamines. And this gave him a dilemma: he didn’t want to take amphetamines but he did want to help his team leader. So what could he do? In the book, he was effectively asking why the UCI let this kind of thing happen. He wrote it as an invitation to the authorities to open their eyes. They didn’t and so they’re maybe the guiltiest ones.

OK, but there wasn’t always the technology to detect certain substances. The riders also had to take responsibility, let their own ethics govern the sport.

Agreed, but for years these people underestimated the problem. In 1997 it was the riders who applied pressure to introduce a haematocrit limit. Maybe it did more harm than good – I don’t know – but it was the people at the base of the pyramid, the riders, who demanded action before the authorities. I wasn’t there at the time but…I’m more angry with the people who facilitated all this or who didn’t do enough. But then yeah, you’re also right about riders and their ethics. Now there are people trying to undermine the credibility of the biological passport, which is a positive thing that the UCI have introduced. A lot has changed but when Landis says there are riders who the UCI has protected, if that’s true, it’s very serious.

Allegations don’t come much more serious that that.

Yeah, because there is this conflict of interests between promotion and organization. If I was in the UCI’s shoes, it’s clear that I would want to create heroes, drama. The two roles, promotion and legislation, should be separated. There ought to be collaboration with the UCI but they shouldn’t be in control of both areas.

Doping is a completely selfish act, isn’t it? Would you agree that these riders have no concern for the wellbeing of the sport?  

I agree.

For example, Danilo Di Luca gave an interview this winter explaining why he collaborated with the Italian Olympic Committee’s (CONI) anti-doping commission. He said he’d done it “because he couldn’t stand being away from races”. There was no notion of him doing it to serve the sport.

This is hypocrisy at its worst. Don’t get me started on Di Luca because if you do we’ll still be here tomorrow morning. I don’t want to talk about him.

But it’s obvious that you’d like to…

[long sigh] You can’t say what he said. I don’t know what he told the investigators – he must have said something if they reduced his ban – but compare Di Luca and Tom Zirbel. Zirbel was banned for two years by USADA having tested positive for DHEA. He didn’t know how it got into his body and he definitely didn’t take it intentionally. Nonetheless, he admitted that what enters an athlete’s body was his responsibility and he wasn’t able to prove that it was contamination, perhaps because he didn’t have the money and the lawyers. Anyway, he couldn’t prove it and he got banned for two years. There was another case - Zirbel heard about it - of an athlete who did manage to prove that he’d taken a contaminated supplement and the company got sued – but the athlete still only got a three-month reduction to his ban. Then along comes Di Luca, who’s already been charged twice -  once for consulting a doctor who’s banned from cycling for life and now for this. Di Luca tests positive, admits he did it and then he provides the investigators with information, which he can do because he’s an expert in the field, and they give him a nine-month reduction. Then what? He throws his hands up in the air and says, “I didn’t name any names. I didn’t spit in the soup. I just explained my doping methods.” So as an expert in the field, he’s told the investigators how you go about doping. At this point Zirbel says, “Ah, it’s a shame that I’m not an expert in doping. I should have pretended to be one then I’d be able to start racing again next year. Because I’m an idiot, though, and I let this substance get into my system without knowing how, I’ve got two years and I’m stuck with it.” You see these are the inconsistencies of the system. I read what Zirbel wrote and I thought, yeah, he’s right.  I respect him. I mean, they are two different bodies making the decisions, USADA and CONI, but the lack of uniformity is still unacceptable. It’s things like this that undermine cycling’s credibility.

And yet it’s a lot better than it was.

I say that if things remain as they are, it’s at least a big improvement on fifteen years ago. There’s been some progress. Everyone whinges about McQuaid but ever since he took over at the UCI – I don’t know, maybe under another president there would have been even greater strides – but things have improved. Maybe it’s because he’s come under pressure from WADA, the riders, the media, but efforts have been made. Cycling must be one of the cleanest sports now. I mean, I don’t know anything about other sports, but I know what happens in cycling. Sure, if you read WADA’s report on the Tour de France, you think to yourself that they’re still not doing enough, that the holes in the net are still too wide, but what do you do?

Is one of the reasons you still “hope” Armstrong was clean his charisma, his presence?

He definitely has that. I rode the 2009 Giro alongside him and you could see his charisma. Cycling has benefited from that. Do I hate him? No, because I’m more upset with the authorities. I never said a word to Armstrong all those years when he was winning the Tour. He was a lot more accessible at the Giro in 2009. Someone from the hospital in Bergamo called me during that race to ask whether Armstrong might agree to have his photo taken with the oncology department, since there was a stage finishing in Bergamo. I thought to myself there was no way, he’d have people asking him for stuff every two minutes…but I’d told this person that I’d try anyway. So at the first opportunity, in the middle of a stage one day, I found him in the bunch and asked him whether he might be able to help. He was really gracious, actually. He said they should look in the roadbook, find out where his team were staying at the end of the stage to Bergamo and meet him there in the evening. He even asked for their name, so he knew who it was. Sure enough, the day after the Bergamo stage, he found me in the bunch and told that the people had come and got the photos they wanted. Apparently the people from the hospital had invited him to some kind of conference in October but he couldn’t go because his girlfriend was due to give birth then. He was very approachable, really, which is not what you’d expect of someone that famous and in demand.

Another charismatic rider whose career overlapped with yours was Gilberto Simoni, your team-mate at Lampre and then again at Saunier Duval.

His was a different kind of charisma. He came to Lampre in 2000 and rode with us until the end of 2001, when he went to Saeco. Then in 2006 I rode with him again at Saunier Duval. I have good memories of him. He’s not someone who brings a team together, not that kind of leader…

Really?

Not in my experience. He was always a bit in his own world. He was very methodical [pauses] but in his own way. In winter, he hardly rode his bike. I can remember the first year that I was at Lampre, he started his training in January. Then he went and finished third in the Giro. Let’s say that he did things his way. Then, by the time we rode for Saunier Duval, he had become much more of a leader, which he needed to be because we had a lot of young riders. The directeur sportif would often give his briefing in the morning and Gibo would interject with his own ideas. He started to have a big influence on the directeurs sportifs, probably as a result of having won the Giro twice and grown in confidence. He didn’t shout but he didn’t have to; when he talked, you listened.

With the media, he was very enigmatic. Sometimes it could be quite comical.

He was like that with us too. You thought he wasn’t paying attention but he noticed everything, then he’d deliver these killer one-liners. If you messed up in a race he wasn’t one to bang his fists the table and if you did something right he’d always remember it. You’d finish stages happy with the work you’d done for the team but thinking Gibo probably hadn’t even noticed certain things, yet he always did. He was always brutally frank as well – a typical mountain man. He didn’t care about public relations.

Which other riders have particularly influenced you in your career?

I learned a lot from Chris Horner.

Tell us more.

Yeah. I raced with him at Saunier Duval. He had real race craft, really good tactical sense, but all of his own, very American. I can remember in the 2005 Tour of Switzerland, he, Leonardo Piepoli and Fabian Jeker were our strongest riders on the climbs and in the transitional stages rest of us had to cover the breaks. I can remember this puzzling him. He said that all team leaders seemed to do in Europe was sit on for the whole race and see how far they could get on the summit finishes. He couldn’t understand why the leaders didn’t also pull on the flat stages, or why they weren’t covering the breaks too. So he had pretty different perspective from the rest of us. He’d been in Europe in the late 1990s, it hadn’t really worked, then he’d come over for the second time in 2005. He was 34 at the time yet, to listen to him, you’d have thought that he still had six, seven years as a pro ahead of him. I couldn’t work it out: he’d been at La Française des Jeux, broken his scaphoid or something, then won everything in America and come back over here. And here he was now sounding like a kid at the start of his career. I said to myself, blimey, never mind six or seven, the way he’s talking he’s going to ride for another ten years. He was 34 then and now I’ve just had my best season at 34 years of age… and he’s just had his best year at 39.

So it was the power of positive thinking, youth as a self-fulfilling prophesy?

That’s it. I was 29 at the time and I was thinking I didn’t have that long left. I looked at him and thought he’d have one, two years at best. But then you heard him, and five years on you can see now that it wasn’t just wishful thinking on his part. There he is at 39 winning at the Tour of the Basque Country.

In your own career, moving to T-Mobile, which soon became Highroad, was a massive turning point.

Yeah. I’d always wanted to ride in a foreign team and the culture of an American team suited me perfectly. The constant striving to improve, the innovation…it lit a fire under the passion I already had.  It’s the main reason why I’ve improved so much. The old way that still prevailed in Italian teams had its advantages but you only have to look at what this team’s for done me to see that this is the way forward. Liquigas is still a big team but Italy’s still a very traditionalist country because its cycling culture has such deep roots. For example, in this team we spend hours if not days getting our bikes properly fitted. In Italian teams, if they do it, it’s just for show, for the press. I’m not even sure they’re convinced that these things have an effect on performance. For example, at Lampre, Compex supplied us with electro-stimulators, like they do here. But there the directeurs gave us the Compex and that was it, whereas here, last year, we had a two-hour seminar on how to use it. See what I mean? There I seem to remember half of the team got a Compex at the start of the season, they took some photos, then the rest of us got ours later in the year, but no one ever told us how to use it. The same thing with nutritional supplements and equipment. You might already know the stuff that they tell you but you might not. Maybe in Italy the amateurs are more advanced in terms of what they know but then they stop learning.

Somehow it’s hard to imagine you becoming a directeur sportif when you retire, whether it’s in Italy or anywhere else.

You never know. I can’t really see myself driving a team car but you never know. At the moment I’m thinking about racing and nothing else. I’m better off being like Chris Horner and living for the moment. That’s where my focus is now.

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