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Leading by example: A discussion with Marco Pinotti

Retired Italian champion — now sports trainer with BMC — Pinotti talks about his vision for the sport, how it can improve and develop.

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Editor’s note: This is an excerpt of an article published on The Outer Line.

During his professional career from 1999 through 2013, Italian Marco Pinotti was one of the most respected racers in the pro peloton. He won the Italian national time trial championships a record six times, as well as numerous stages in the Giro d’Italia, and he wore the race’s pink jersey on two occasions. In 2009, he joined the Columbia High Road team — a team which set new standards in terms of clean racing as well as competitive results. He finished his career in 2013 with BMC Racing, where he remains as a sports trainer, and where he recently guided the team to victory in the world time trial championships in Richmond, Virginia.

Pinotti was perhaps never a household name in pro racing, but during his career he established himself as much more than an accomplished bike racer. While training to become a professional cyclist, he also studied to gain a graduate engineering degree — an accomplishment of which he is at least equally proud. Throughout his career, Pinotti was recognized as one of the most observant and analytical riders in the peloton. He always publicly maintained a strict anti-doping stance — something of a rarity in Italian cycling during those years.

Despite his racing record and his recent successful managerial career, there is no hint of boastfulness from Pinotti. He has a broad perspective on the sport and the rare ability to look beyond day-to-day events to see the bigger picture in terms of the challenges and opportunities facing pro cycling. The Outer Line recently talked with Pinotti in Richmond.

The Outer Line: You retired from active racing in 2013. Looking back over your career, what was your personal highlight as a racer?

Marco Pinotti: I was fortunate to have many highlights in my career. But as a lover of the sport as a whole, and being aware of the message that sport can deliver to the world, I would say that participating in the Olympics was the real highlight of my career. There is a meaning in the Olympics that goes beyond the racing results or the purely sporting criteria. I felt very privileged to participate for my country.

TOL: Few people have the breadth of experience that you have already had in your career. You have been a racer, a journalist/writer, a coach/manager, and now you have a role on the Professional Cycling Council (PCC) as a regulator and policymaker. What do you see as the biggest challenges facing pro cycling?

MP: Well, where should I begin? I see many challenges, but I can also see further out to the future for some possible solutions and new opportunities. First, I believe that we have made some big steps forward in our anti-doping controls over the past decade — particularly in terms of the out-of-competition testing systems. It is important that we do not reduce the regularity of testing, and it’s critical that we stay current in terms of detecting new substances and new doping methods. I believe we should keep very tight controls in place, and we should increase the punishment — I think we should consider life bans for these dopers. It is also important that we try to reduce the time between the possible violation event and the disqualification.

[Editor’s note: For a deeper and perhaps more philosophical take on Pinotti’s perspectives on doping, consider this quote from his 2013 book. “Doping should be seen as wrong, not for fear of controls, but simply because it is not right to do it. It pursues an end with the wrong means and it leaves you empty-handed. Or does anyone really believe that winning while cheating makes us truly happy? And then are we really sure that it’s worth it? Beyond the possible effects on physical health, perhaps more importantly, shall we talk about the wounds of the soul? Or what message we pass on to future generations?”]

TOL: What are your thoughts about the ownership and control of the sport? Should we be moving more toward a franchise and league type of structure, like we see in other sports?

MP: I think the current system of ownership could remain, if only the owners were willing to look at the longer term, and try to make the sport more attractive as a whole. The consolidation of the sport into a single entity somehow — where teams, organizers, and media partners all had a stake — could be good for the sport; it could make the whole “pie” bigger for everyone. And the UCI would of course still regulate it and maybe provide some other services, like anti-doping officials and commissaires. But we have to understand that the sport is a market, and when someone sees an economic opportunity to collect or bring together different ownership, it will happen.

From the team perspective, obviously I would like as many teams as possible be more stable franchises — teams with a history and a hardcore fan base, so that they can make longterm decisions about hiring and developing certain riders, building a stable coaching staff, having a consistent training location and venues. A league structure would create more stability for the teams, and in turn it should be possible to create longer and more permanent sponsorships, a strong core group of fans, and so on. The disadvantages are for those on the outside of the league — how would they be able to survive? But maybe they won’t survive anyway? These questions are very difficult to answer.

TOL: What are your thoughts about televising the sport, and making it more interesting to the casual fan? What could we do with the calendar and the race schedule to make it more interesting and accessible to fans?

MP: It seems to me there are several things that can be done easily. The race organizers should try to avoid the very long and flat stages — they are difficult to cover and just not very interesting to watch. They could also put more cameras in the team cars — when race strategy decisions are being made; that could be very interesting to watch. There are many opportunities to bring new rider information and graphics to the screen to also make it more interesting. And as I said, we need a new single media platform where fans can get all the information on everything about cycling.

TOL: What new ideas or initiatives is the PCC looking at?

MP: One interesting area that we are examining is the issue of prize money allocation at the WorldTour level. One idea that I have proposed is that instead of the organizers setting aside a certain amount of money for the race winners, this amount of money (or maybe more) would be contributed into a different type of financial account, to fund the retirement needs of all the riders. This type of system would have several advantages. Besides greatly strengthening the retirement benefits for all riders, it would also acknowledge the role of the domestique, who is not currently highly compensated, for their back-breaking labor in delivering race winners to the line. These funds would be professionally managed, and would be made available to racers after they retire — based on the number of years and races in which they participated. The other strong motivator here would be in terms of anti-doping. If a rider was caught doping or cheating, he would get nothing. Anything this rider “paid into” the system would get redistributed to other riders who played by the rules.

TOL: Any other thoughts about other critical issues in the sport?

MP: At the world championships here, I have seen a lot of people following the elite women’s races, and I have always wondered why can’t this sport promote and market women’s cycling better? We have to figure out a better way to do that. The sport could be much more popular, and I think global sponsors would be very receptive. We are leaving out half of the world here!

TOL: Given your background, education, and strong reputation with the riders, would you consider a future role in helping to better govern this sport, for example with the Italian Federation or the UCI?

MP: As I said, at the moment I am enjoying very much being on the sporting side of the operation. There are many sometimes radical ideas for how to change and fix pro cycling. Some of these ideas I agree with, but you always have to be cautious, and analyze the possible outcomes, think about how it will affect the riders and other people working in the sport. I always try to play the role of keeping my feet firmly on the ground. But I love this sport, and I can’t rule out anything.