Look around the peloton today, and it’s fair to say that Italian cycling is not what it once was. Vincenzo Nibali aside, riders with the quality of Pantani, Cipollini, Bettini, and Tafi seem to be in very short supply. Even when you take into consideration all the changes professional cycling has undergone since the early 2000s, it’s clear that the talent pool is shallower.
However, this could all be about to change, as a new generation of talented riders including the likes of Fabio Aru and Davide Formolo are making their breakthroughs. The Pro Continental Bardiani-CSF team, run by Bruno Reverberi since 1982, is at the forefront of this new wave, with a developing team full of aggressive young riders.
The 2014 season was one of the most successful in the team’s history, with three stage wins at the Giro d’Italia, Giro del Trentino, and the Tour of Britain, as well as victories in several classics.
Bruno’s son Roberto has been sport director at the team since the late 1990s and has taken a front seat in introducing the new philosophies that the team has put into place in recent years. He was happy to divulge some of the secrets of their success, as well as opining on the state of Italian cycling as a whole.
First to the subject of winning — it’s everything in cycling. For sponsors who want exposure, for teams who want sponsors, for riders who want teams. Nobody remembers second place, as the saying goes. Well, Roberto Reverberi does. “Winning is not the most important thing, not in terms of indicators for the future — we prefer to choose riders who have room to improve when they join us, as opposed to somebody already nearing their potential.”
The example of Edoardo Zardini is a good one — he won just five races in four years as an U-23 rider for the ASD Mantovani and Colpack teams. In contrast, he ended his second year as a professional having beaten the likes of Team Sky’s Nicolas Roche and Bradley Wiggins, as well as Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-Quick-Step) on the steep slopes of The Tumble to emerge victorious on the queen stage of the Tour of Britain. Selection to Italy’s world championships squad followed and, though he didn’t ride, it proves Reverberi’s point.
The Bardiani-CSF head office houses an important tool in the quest to spot talent. “We have a database of results — juniors, amateurs, the lot. It’s an important tool we use to spot the trends of particular riders and how they grow year on year,” Reverberi said.
And what do they look for? “We’re more interested in riders who are consistent but may win less, rather than someone who wins two or three races in a month before disappearing.”
Consistency is the key. It makes sense, especially given the darker side of the sport at the amateur level. This is something the team has experienced firsthand as recently as last August, when the news came out that stagiaire Dario Mantelli had tested positive for EPO before joining Bardiani to ride the Tour of Denmark.
When asked about Mantelli, Reverberi got straight to the point, “The case is really simple — Dario didn’t have any type of contract with us. He was with us only for that race and we didn’t have any plans to keep him past that — it was always the plan to send him back to [team] Malmantile.”
The team itself has been stung in the past. Most notably with Emanuele Sella’s CERA-fueled exploits at the 2008 Giro d’Italia, where he won three mountain stages as well as the mountains classification.
“The bio-passport has been an important innovation,”Reverberi said. “At the time, we had nothing like it, no way to control a rider and avoid something like that. After the Sella case we started to think about changing our project, to focus on young riders. We made the decision not to hire any riders with trouble in their past [a policy Team Sky is notable for enforcing]. I guess we were one of the first teams in professional cycling to do that.”
Sella spent his time as an amateur at the legendary Zalf team, something he has in common with current Bardiani riders Manuel Bongiorno, Sonny Colbrelli, and Enrico Battaglin, as well as others who have moved on such as Domenico Pozzovivo and Gianluca Brambilla. Zalf has been around even longer than Reverberi’s team and the likes of Ivan Basso, Damiano Cunego, Paolo Savoldelli, and Maurizio Fondriest have all passed through its ranks before going on to greater things.
So is Zalf something of a feeder team for Bardiani these days? If they are, then Reverberi won’t admit it. “Historically they are the most prestigious amateur team — it’s normal they have some of the best talents, so we look there. I have a good relationship with Luciano Rui [team manager], but we work closely with other squads like Colpack and Mastromarco too.” It’s a measured response and shows the breadth of scouting that the team carries out, an area to which other members of staff also contribute.
“Our other sporting director, Mirko Rossato, is a very important part of what we do. He spent a large part of his career in the amateur world, while our coach Claudio Cucinotta has worked with junior and amateur teams in the past. He knows exactly what values to search for in talented riders.”
So who are these talented riders we’ll be seeing in the green of Bardiani-CSF in future? The flame-haired Veneziani Paolo Simion joined in 2015 after a period as a staigiare last autumn. He racked up 17 victories in the past three years for Zalf and Mastromarco. “He agreed to join us in 2013,” said Reverberi. “He’s a really strong sprinter and wily too thanks to his track background. In 2014, he moved to Tuscany and may have lost some outright speed but is stronger in the hills for it.” And his prospects? “We are looking at him as possibly a key rider for [Sonny] Colbrelli or a lead-out for [Nicola] Ruffoni.”
Puncheur Simone Andreetta has joined the ranks of ex-Zalf riders at the team, while Luca Chirico comes from Continental team MG Kvis-Wilier. The duo were on the podium of the U-23 Italian championships last season, and Bardiani has also signed the winner, Simone Sterbini. “He signed a contract with us three years ago [when he was 17] — we had superb reports on him even then,” Reverberi continued.
Reverberi sounded less hopeful about Italian cycling as a whole, especially in terms of the sponsor situation. Lampre-Merida is the sole WorldTour representative from the peninsula this season, after the long-running Liquigas/Cannondale setup merged with Jonathan Vaughters’ Garmin team.
“It’s hard to reach the heights of the 1990s — cycling is developing into a global sport now, and big Italian teams like Mapei, Saeco, and Fassa Bortolo don’t exist anymore,” he said. “Our team doesn’t have the big budget sponsors with the potential to operate at WorldTour level, for example.”
“We have a different kind of project for that reason. For the second year in a row we’re the youngest team at the WorldTour and ProContinental levels and the neo-pros we sign have chances to try their luck and make an impact at top level events almost immediately. You don’t get chances like that at WorldTour teams unless you are a [Peter] Sagan or [Fabio] Aru.”
Not that Bardiani didn’t try for several Italians who jumped straight into the WorldTour “I can’t hide that we have tried to sign riders like [Davide] Formolo and Aru in the past,” Reverberi said. “For example, I recall Aru’s former coach Olivano Locatelli delivering great feedback to us. We made different choices like [Francesco] Bongiorno and [Edoardo] Zardini though.”
It looks like the team’s choices are paying off — the young men in green are clearly still improving and already succeeding at the top level with their attacking style of riding. It’s an exciting, albeit different, time for Italian cycling, and with its sponsors confirmed for at least two more years, the Bardiani-CSF project leading the way.
Daniel Ostanek also runs the cycling website InTheDrops.net.