Giro d'Italia

A conversation with Giro race director Angelo Zomegnan

Angelo Zomegnan works in a 20-by-10-foot office with a courtyard view from the third floor of the RCS headquarters, an Italian media conglomerate that occupies the entire block between Via San Marco and Via Solferino in central Milan. Angelo Zomegnan behind stacks of documents stacked on the meeting desk…

Angelo Zomegnan works in a 20-by-10-foot office with a courtyard view from the third floor of the RCS headquarters, an Italian media conglomerate that occupies the entire block between Via San Marco and Via Solferino in central Milan.

Angelo Zomegnan behind stacks of documents stacked on the meeting desk in his office at the RCS HQ in Milan.

His space is unassuming. There’s a basic PC monitor placed next to the room’s only window. A replica of the first Italian flag, a map of Italy dotted with dozens of pushpins, and a sketch of Marco Pantani adorn the wall behind his desk chair. Scattered in-between are a hodgepodge of photos and certificates marking the history of his career.

When Zomegnan was 18 years old, he decided to make it his job to send the race results of his best childhood friend to the local newspapers in La Brianza (Lombardy near Lake Como). He explains, “this man was my dear friend, the kind of friend who you can spend Christmas with his family. I wanted to show people that he was a strong cyclist. That’s what started my career as a journalist.”

In 1979, he was hired as a stringer by La Gazzetta dello Sport (an RCS company) but was required to prove himself as a futball reporter for two years before his boss, Gino Palumbo, allowed him to follow his passion of ciclismo. Zomegnan remembers, “at that time, I could never have imagined that I would become the director of the Giro d’ Italia.”

Over the years, he steadily worked his way up the ranks, covering the Olympics, the Worlds, the Classics, the Tour de France, and the Giro before he was tapped by the RCS to run the Giro in 2004.

Perhaps the most telling fixture in Zomegnan’s office hangs above his computer — it’s the jersey Italian football star Roberto Baggio wore during the 1994 World Cup final against Brazil, where the Brazilians won the title after Baggio missed the final penalty kick. Zomegnan explains, “I specifically asked him for that jersey because it serves as a reminder that even the greatest champion can make a mistake in important moments.”

Three days before the start of the 2011 Giro, the 56-year-old Zomegnan let us into his world for the better part of an afternoon. Between a flurry of office phone calls, emails, and signature requests, he responded to all of our interview questions. He never rushed, he drew diagrams and maps, he fidgeted with a paperclip, he pounded the desk lightly with his palms, and he raised and lowered his voice in rhythmic Italian flare to ensure that his point was delivered with impact.

VeloNews: Let’s start with the proposed 2012 Washington, D.C. start. What happened?

Angelo Zomegnan signing a stack of Giro-related documents brought in by his staff during our interview.

Angelo Zomegnan: I still consider starting the Giro in D.C. a good idea and good ideas like this will not die in my mind as long as I am the race director. It was simply too big a logistical operation and we were not ready in 2012. I think that one day we can start the race in D.C. As you know, we alternate international starts for the Giro every other year so that makes 2014 the next opportunity to consider another D.C. project.

VN: I think that many cycling enthusiasts struggle to understand the difference between the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France. Can you explain how the Giro is different from the Tour? Why should we pay attention to the Giro?

AZ: Yes, I can tell you that. The Tour de France is the biggest — the Giro d’Italia is the best. I will explain why.

My philosophy is that I think of the Tour de France as a teacher. I have a good team and enthusiastic marketing manager. We’ve studied and learned many things from the Tour. Initially the thinking was, “If we push hard, maybe in ten years we could arrive to be on a similar scale.” But why? If we follow the Tour de France model, then no matter what, we will always be thought of as “the second grand tour.” So we made a decision to do something special, something that nobody else did before: we decided to be different.

The 2011 Giro d'Italia

VN: The U.S. has followed a multi-stage format similar to the Tour de France for several marquee races. Is that a mistake?

AZ: The American system is based on power, speed, and contact. If you do a race from Sonoma to San Francisco and in the first 75 percent of the race, if you do not have power, speed, or contact — you have nothing. In my opinion, the point-to-point stage system is not the best way to showcase cycling to the American people.

It was the same mistake they made with the Red Zinger Classic, the Coors Classic, Tour DuPont, Tour de Minnesota, and the Tour of Virginia. And right now, I hope that my dear friend Andrew Messick is not falling into the same mistake with the Tour of California — only to close down in two or three years. The mentality over there is different. You have to do something that the people can see many times in a downtown area.

If you are a young American boy on the finish line of an American stage race and you see this: a small group of five sprinters arrives first, the sprint winner goes to the podium. Five minutes after, the group with the jersey leader crosses the line, and he goes to the podium. Well, the young boy does not understand why there are two winners in the same race, with the same finish line. You have to build the mentality, the culture — you have to go into the schools and explain to the U.S. children what cycling is.

VN: Back to Italy. Please walk me through this “being different” process for planning the Giro.

The complete profile of the 2011 Giro d'Italia.

AZ: First, we put the psychology of the cyclist in front of the sport of cycling. We looked at how their attitude is shaped when races become too predictable. Consider the Milano San Remo. After an athlete rides it 4 or 5 times, it becomes routine. You have to eat at six in the morning, you have to arrive 7:30, you start at 9:30, you can go at 40-kilometers-an-hour until Tortona, then you attack — it becomes too easy. For the Giro, we do not want a cyclist’s attitude to stagnate. If you don’t change the race design, if you don’t understand the psychology of the professional cyclist, then you run the risk of proposing boring races.

Second, we put “art” into the stages every day. If you watch the Tour de France, I’m sure you’ll see that on the flat days for sprinters they always move at 45-, 47-, 50-kilometers-per-hour for the first two hours. After, you have a small group of five to12 people who make a break. They manage the gap for a certain time, the peloton runs them down, and then there is a sprint at five kilometers before the finish. Television viewers could watch for two hours and nothing happens. It is boring. Why not put something at 10 kilometers before the finish? Why not give the opportunity for the people who attack to win the stage or make the group work before 100 kilometers.

Third, we have to defend the contact between the riders and the people. In NASCAR, you can’t touch the drivers, in the NBA you can’t touch — you are too far away. We are lucky because we are not so big. The Giro caravan is only 2,000 people, the Tour de France is bigger. Because of this smaller size, we can start every stage downtown. If we grow to the point where we have to start and finish in commercial centers outside of towns, then the romanticism of the race is lost. The spectators no longer have the opportunity to watch and touch the cyclists. We must create the opportunity to put the champions in the middle of the people. Last year, we had 10.5 million people watching the race in-person. Can you tell me how may Pasadena stadiums full of people that is? Maybe five stadiums full every day of the Giro? It’s a lot of people.

VN: About this year’s Giro; has putting “art” into the stages everyday simply served to create one of most difficult routes in recent memory?

AZ: This is not true. There is a difference between the thinking of this year’s route and some of the other Giros. I will explain. This year all of the mountain stages terminate at a summit. We did this because the athlete must adopt a different attitude to be a protagonist in the race. You can’t bluff — you have to ride. For example, let’s look at a 2011 Tour de France’s second mountain stage (Zomegnan pulls a map of the Tour’s ninth stage). It is a mountain stage this one? Can you explain to me where the mountain is? Okay, okay, there are mountains. Yes, there are some mountains — but the final summit is 54 kilometers before the finish.

Again, I always try to do something different. Last year, we proposed the strade bianche (white gravel roads) in Montalcino. It was extremely difficult to run the race over those roads. We were lucky because there was some rain and it turned out to be tremendous for both the cyclists and the spectators. In 2005, we ran the Colle delle Finestre and I included it again this year as the penultimate stage because there are not only mountains — there are strade bianche too. And you have to propose stages like this because it gives the people something to look forward to, something for the race to build up to.

VN: When I look at the route sheet, my eyes go straight to the triple mountain stages 13, 14 (Zoncolan Stage), and 15 — they are like three Tour de France queen stages in a row. What is the thinking behind this design?

AZ: You’re just looking at the mountain stages. But this year is the 150th celebration of the unification of Italy and there are many things you can’t see on the race map that were involved in the race design. We start in Torino because it is Italy’s first capital. On stage two, we arrive in Parma because every year, on the second Sunday of May, Italy celebrates “the day of the bicycle.” Parma is a town with a significant network of bicycle lanes. Stage three starts in Reggio Emilia because it’s where the first flag of Italy came from. Every stage tells a story.

Stage 14 ends atop the Zoncolan.

Okay, now why the mountains? You know that the mountains will put everyone in their place. The spectators are waiting to see someone and something that they are not able to do. Something that their banker or university teacher can’t do — something that only the gifted cycling champions can do.

Let’s talk about the Zoncolan mountain stage and how we are making different decisions that are not common in cycling. The Zoncolan is a tremendous mountain. There are two principle routes or sides to the top. The Giro used to avoid what I call, “the true Zoncolan side” because there is a narrow bottleneck at 1.2 kilometers and if a car stalls there, and then the race is finished. Before I was the race director everyone said, “We will only do the traditional Zoncolan route.” But I told them, “no, the side with the bottleneck is a stronger climb and unlike the other side, all of the spectators can see the climb from the top — it’s like a stadium.” So what did we do? We came up with a plan for a mass pit-stop in Ovaro, where a team mechanic or director transfers from the team car to a motorcycle prior to the mountain. Now there are no more problems with a broken car creating a roadblock. We did this for the first time three years ago, again last year, and will do it this year too (stage 14). The Zoncolan is like our Maracanã (the football stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil). Last year, in Italy we had a 37-percent television viewership share during this stage — on Sunday with football matches. It is something special.

VN: Are mountain stages like this a test, maybe encouragement, for doping?

AZ: No. The doping is a problem for me, the police, the fans, everyone. Doping is not a problem of resistance; it is a problem of speed. The great cyclists — the clean cyclists, they will really need to pay attention during these stages. A clean cyclist’s performance curve will begin to fall-off significantly by this time, two weeks into the race. I’m happy to see this trend — the performance fall-off curve. A doping cyclist will not have this fall-off. Their levels will remain constant and every day this delta will grow between the true cyclist and a doping cyclist.

VN: Are you taking any extra precautions or controls this year to check for this ‘fall-off” curve?

AZ: Last year, the Giro d’Italia had the most controls before during and after in the history of all of the races, including the Tour de France. This year, we are not only working on the number of controls, but also working with the UCI on the target using the athlete’s biological passports.

VN: Final question, who do you expect to see on top of the podium in Milan?

AZ: (He pulls out a piece of paper and draws a podium) I hope that the names on top of the podium’s first second and third spots are: (He writes, “Honest, Honest, and Honest” above each spot on the podium diagram). The Giro d’Italia is no longer in the position where it needs a big name to be a big race. It used to be the champion that made the Giro — now the Giro will make the champion. (Again, Zomegnan points his finger to each position on his podium diagram) Honest, honest, and honest — for me, the name is all the same.