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Italian fans cheered on Fabio Aru as he made his...

The fall — and rise — of Italian cycling

Italian cycling used to be dominant. Now, after doping scandals and economic problems, it's starting to come back, slowly but surely.

At the start of the Giro d’Italia this week, everything will appear as it should in the home of Coppi and Campagnolo. The underpinnings of Italian cycling — the Dolomites, the glamorous podium girls, the frenzied tifosi at the roadside — will all be hitting their marks like actors in a gorgeous Fellini film. Scratch below the surface, however, and the reality is dramatically different.

While the Giro might be experiencing an unprecedented boom, Italian cycling has been on life support for much of the past decade. A searing economic crisis, legacy of doping scandals, and lack of charismatic stars have left Italy’s formerly thriving peloton withering on the vine. Once home to four WorldTour-level teams and stars like Marco Pantani and Mario Cipollini, today Italy can claim only Lampre – Merida as its own — and half of that title sponsorship hails from Taiwan. Races are struggling, too, with tours in Sicily, Sardinia, and mainland Italy having shuttered in the past decade.

The Italians call it “la crisi” — the crisis — and it’s ripped the guts out of Italy’s once proud and vibrant peloton.

“The crisis hurts a lot,” says ex-pro and Cannondale sport director Fabrizio Guidi. “We still have a great culture of cycling, but we miss the top right now. We still have a good base and foundation, but if things do not change, it will be more and more difficult.”

Despite the economic malaise, or perhaps because of it, Italy is quietly showing signs of life at the grassroots level. A new generation is picking up the baton, with young stars like Fabio Aru and Davide Formolo asserting themselves in a pro peloton that is brash, chaotic, and full of contradiction.

And Italy still boasts more riders in the elite peloton than any other nation. La crisi hasn’t changed that. But most of them now race for teams based elsewhere. It is the dawn of an Italian cycling diaspora.

Paolo Bettini, the rambunctious, two-time world champion, still cuts a lean figure at 41. Nicknamed “Grillo” (meaning “cricket,” an ode to the manner in which he would bounce around the peloton), Bettini is always smiling, except when you ask him about the current state of cycling in Italy.

“Why is Italian cycling struggling? Taxes are too high,” Bettini explains with a shake of his head. “To find a sponsor in Italy, they must pay too much to the government. So if a sponsor pays $10 million, less than half goes to the team after the government takes its share. We have a joke in Italy: ‘You work eight months for the country, and four months for your family.’ And it’s like that in cycling.”

Bettini has firsthand knowledge of how challenging it can be. In late 2013, he quit his job as Italy’s national coach to partner with Formula 1 driver Fernando Alonso in an ill-fated effort to launch a new WorldTour team. When that idea fizzled, he began sniffing around Italy for new sponsors, but without luck.

“La crisi,” Bettini says, cursing the crisis in Italian. “It’s killing Italian cycling.”

Much like in neighboring Spain, Italy’s ongoing economic crisis has ripped the legs out from underneath the Italian peloton. The Great Recession hit the Italian economy very hard, with a more than seven percent decline in GDP. Unemployment for people under 30 is north of 40 percent. Corruption runs deep, and the nearly decade-long economic stagnation led to deep budget cuts that have devastated Italy’s once thriving professional scene. There’s no money for races or teams.

“Things have changed a lot,” explains ex-pro and Trek – Segafredo sport director Andrea Baffi. “We have a rich cycling culture, but the money is not there any more, and the government is not supporting cycling. Italy is in danger of losing this big cycling culture.”

Here’s a sampling of the races that have closed: Settimana Lombarda, Giro del Veneto, Coppi Piacci, Giro di Padania, and Roma Maxima. And it’s even worse for teams, long backed by regional governments and Italian-based companies. The Fassa Bortolo, Liquigas, Mapei, and Saeco teams all shut down.

“It’s almost impossible to find one big title sponsor in Italy right now,” says longtime Italian manager Gianni Savio, who’s been in the game for nearly three decades. His Androni Giocattoli – Sidermec team is supported by a patchwork of small, low-budget sponsors, something the charismatic Savio is proud of.

“My team jersey is a like a newspaper,” he says. “Since I do not rely on one big sponsor, I have been able to survive the crisis. I have seen many who have not.”

Italy’s private sector is steering wide of cycling. Major homegrown industries that once backed cycling, including flooring (Mapei), heating gas (Liquigas), construction products (Fassa Bortolo), super markets (Mercatone Uno), and vacation properties (Domina Vacanze), have all walked away. Italian cycling brands are not stepping up, either. Trek, BMC, Cannondale, Giant, and Specialized all support teams in major ways, but in Italy, bike companies are content to remain in the background as suppliers. None has put forth the financial commitment to become a title sponsor.

Any tale of Italy’s cycling decline would be incomplete without delving into its lurid doping past. Italy had more than its fair share, from the Sanremo raids in the 2001 Giro d’Italia to “Oil for Drugs” in 2003 to Pantani’s tragic decline and death in 2004. An entire generation was stained, including Danilo Di Luca, Stefano Garzelli, Ivan Basso, Gilberto Simoni, and Riccardo Riccò. In a sport rife with salacious fables, Italy holds an infamous place.

The nation is the birthplace of modern doping, and Francesco Conconi was the godfather. In the 1980s, he started blending sophisticated doping practices with modern science and training methods. By the late 1980s, he also started adding EPO to the recipe, with pyrotechnic results. His disciples, Michele Ferrari and Luigi Cecchini, pushed the envelope during the 1990s, adding blood transfusions. The debauchery eventually led to a string of doping scandals, from the Festina Affair in 1998 to Operación Puerto in 2006 and finally the USADA case against Lance Armstrong in 2012. High-profile raids involving Italy’s carabinieri revealed a deep rot inside Italian cycling. Lurid media headlines scared off sponsors and fans in droves.

“All of our big stories are in the past, so we need to start to build new stories,” Baffi says with a weary shrug of his shoulders. “We are in a better place now than we were before. There is a new generation, with a new story.”

It was during those darkest days that Italian cycling started to reinvent itself. Dr. Aldo Sassi, who died of a brain tumor in 2010, was a pioneer of clean training, founding the Mapei Training Center (backed by ex-Mapei sponsor Giorgio Squinzi). His earliest proponents and students included 2011 Tour winner Cadel Evans and a reformed Basso, who came back from a ban to win the 2010 Giro. Others have followed, including Paolo Slongo, who works closely with Nibali, and Luca Guercilena, now team manager at Trek – Segafredo, who coaches Fabian Cancellara and the Swiss national team.

Italian cycling was brought to its knees, but the sport didn’t die. Instead, it found a new home. Just like the emigrants who escaped Italy a century ago, many members of today’s Italian peloton were forced out.

“The problem isn’t that Italian cycling is falling down, it’s that the rest of the world is coming up,” explains Etixx – Quick-Step rider Matteo Trentin, one of three Italians on the Belgian team. “It’s not harder to find a team, it’s just different, because instead of going to an Italian team, you go to an international team. If you’re a good rider, you can still find a place in the peloton.”

Filling the void created by the lack of Italian teams are outfits from cycling’s new establishment. Russia, the United Kingdom, Kazakhstan, Australia, South Africa, and the United States, with three WorldTour-registered teams, are all part of a reshaping of the modern peloton.

“The situation now in Italy is not so good. We only have Lampre, and it’s more difficult for the young riders to find a place,” says Oscar Gatto, one of four Italians at Tinkoff. “The peloton is more international, but each sponsor wants to have a few places to help out their young riders. Look at Etixx or Lotto — they bring along their own Belgian riders. That’s what we’re missing in Italy.”

The dispersion also extends to staffers. Without Italian teams to work for, sport directors and managers have migrated to other teams, spreading the Italian DNA across the peloton. Astana, Trek – Segafredo, Katusha, BMC Racing, and Tinkoff all boast very strong Italian influences. That cross-pollination helps Italian riders to find a home away from home. BMC, for example, has four Italian sport directors and five Italian riders.

All is not grim. And how could it be, in a country as effervescent and optimistic as Italy? The nation that brought us Coppi and Bartali, a country that has a shrine atop a hill devoted to the patron saint of professional cyclists, breathes cycling like no other.

There was good news this winter when coffeemaker Segafredo announced a three-year contract to link up with Trek. Team manager Guercilena engineered the deal. The news of the first major Italian company entering the sport in nearly a decade hit the Italian peloton like a jolt of espresso.

“The arrival of Segafredo is very big for Italian cycling, and Luca did all the work on that one,” says Trek sport director Dirk Demol. “And coffee and bikes, it’s a nice combination.”

Some are hopeful the arrival of Segafredo will spark a revival of Italian fortunes. Despite the high tax burden, there is quiet optimism that Italian racing is pedaling out of its unease. Doping stories no longer dominate the headlines. There’s a sense of hope and optimism inside the Italian peloton.

“We are seeing big Italian companies show new interest in the Giro,” race director Mauro Vegni said last year. “None are confirmed yet, but we hope to have some significant new sponsors soon. We are very healthy, and companies see the Giro as a way to promote their companies. Maybe soon we will see a major Italian team. I am optimistic about Italian cycling.”

While the sport is starting to show signs of life, it desperately needs a high-profile star to energize the media and public. Pantani and Cipollini entertained a generation, but today’s tifosi are waiting for someone like ski racer Alberto Tomba or Moto GP superstar Valentino Rossi, figures with charisma and success who transcend the sport and reach beyond the devotee.

Nibali could have become that star after he won the 2014 Tour, but he’s naturally shy and doesn’t actively seek out the spotlight. Instead, it could be 25-year-old Fabio Aru who draws in younger fans. He is comfortable in front of the TV cameras and has the racing chops to back it up. Hot off his first career grand tour victory at the Vuelta a España, Aru will make his Tour debut this summer.

“I believe he can be Italy’s next great rider,” said Astana sport director Giuseppe Martinelli, who led Pantani and Nibali to Tour victories. “He has all the skills, and he’s confident in himself. He knows what he wants without being arrogant.”

Aru grew up in a modest household in San Gavino Monreale, on the west coast of Sardinia. Far from the cycling hotbeds of Tuscany or Veneto, Aru didn’t start cycling at a serious level until he was 15, relatively late by Italian standards. After some remarkable results in mountain bike and cyclocross events, Aru gained a benefactor from a wealthy family in Bologna who would provide him accommodation and transportation to races each weekend. Unlike the traditional route to the top, through the Italian cycling federation or a development team linked to a top pro team, Aru employed pure Italian passion (with a dose of good fortune and generosity) to get his start.

“This family in Bologna helped my family pay for the plane tickets,” Aru explains. “I would race Sunday, then fly home that night to return to my studies at school. It wasn’t until I reached the under-23 level that I even dreamed of becoming a professional.”

It’s that dirt-under-your-fingernails passion that keeps feeding Italian cycling from below, and is saving the sport from the excesses of the EPO era. Even as the upper echelon of Italian cycling continues to face serious headwinds, the grassroots keeps churning out top-level talent. Aru’s arrival is proof that Italian cycling is alive and well. After more than a decade of poor harvests, there’s a new varietal for the Italian aficionado to get behind. Gran fondos draw thousands. The Giro d’Italia is enjoying an unprecedented boom. Cycling is cool again among Italy’s hipsters and youth.

“When I was a young boy, I was the only one riding a bike at my school,” says Cannondale’s Davide Formolo, just 22, and another one of Italy’s bright lights. “Now cycling is growing fast. There are 150 very serious amateurs just in my city of Verona. There are 2,000 top amateurs in Italy. You can sense that things are building up again.”

Cycling’s not dead in Italy; it’s simply reinventing itself.