By Neal Rogers
“What Comes Around,” from “Paul’s Boutique”
It’s time to slip into “guilty-pleasure mode,” ladies and gents, because there’s a little trouble brewing in the neighborhood this week. First, please allow me to wash my hands, as I have spent the past few days digging through a few Dumpsters.
The trouble began almost three weeks ago at the second annual Cheaha Challenge criterium May 1 in Anniston, Alabama. I see a few of you are already nodding your heads, wondering, “What took these guys so long?” All I can say is that when I first heard the buzz that Monex team rider/director Roberto Gaggioli had attacked Jittery Joe’s Jonny Sundt with a two-by-four after the Anniston criterium, I didn’t follow up on it. Plain and simple, my low-road journalistic instinct was weak.
Actually, to be honest, I thought it was false information. I just didn’t believe it. I hadn’t heard anything from Jittery Joe’s, or Monex, or anyone else, and hadn’t read it on any “cycling news” sources. (Sorry, cyclingforums.com, you know how it is.)
I’ve never met Gaggioli, who has more than 200 career victories, including the USPRO championship in 1988. But I’d heard that he runs it pretty aggressively, both in the pack and behind the wheel in the race caravan.
I have met Sundt, and always found him to be a pretty easygoing guy. Every time I’ve seen him he’s been grinning ear to ear, like maybe he’s been hanging out with Myles Rockwell — not exactly a scrapper type. And even if he was getting lippy with Gaggioli, I really couldn’t believe that he would have said or done anything that would merit an assault with a potentially deadly weapon. But then again, I’ve never raced against the man.
Since the story has gone otherwise unreported, here’s one reporter’s attempt to provide the dirty little details, or as many of them as one can cobble together after speaking with Gaggioli, Sundt, various passers-of-the-buck at USA Cycling, Jittery Joe’s team director Micah Rice and Gaggioli’s attorney Bob Mionske, who is now representing his defense to the federation.
The facts (or the details both sides agree to)
Both Sundt and Gaggioli agreed that the altercation that finally took place was a week in the making. The conflict between the two began at the Athens Twilight criterium, a week prior to Anniston. Both agree some bumping took place, as it will. Apparently Gaggioli didn’t like Sundt’s riding, and let him know. Sundt took it as something other than constructive criticism, and let Gaggioli know.
The tension between the two escalated throughout the following week at the Heritage Series criteriums in South Carolina, and Gaggioli and Sundt finally went to blows following a rainy Anniston crit. Race officials broke up the fight.
No charges were filed with the Anniston police, though Sundt lodged a complaint with USA Cycling. A one-year suspension has been recommended, as verified by USA Cycling communications director Andy Lee, and Gaggioli is appealing. Meanwhile, a heavy dent on the down tube of Sundt’s aluminum Klein frame has rendered it unsafe to race.
Okay, enough with the facts. Let’s get into some finger-pointing.
According to Gaggioli, the trouble began in Athens when Sundt was riding dangerously in corners.
“Jonny was aggressive all night long,” Gaggioli said. “Okay, that’s racing. What surprised me after the race is that he was into the fight mood. He was screaming at me trying to fight. I told him I don’t fight, I never do. What happens in the race is normal. You bump into each other and it’s over. He was trying to fight, but I turned around and went back to the car.”
Sundt agreed that the two “had words after Twilight.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever caused a wreck before,” he said. “I can fly through corners, and that makes some people nervous, but never to my knowledge have I caused a pileup. My role on the team is the workhorse, and you sometimes become the enforcer. For example, if someone is pushing Cesar Grajales around at Redlands, they’re going to hear about it.”
It was Gaggioli who was riding dangerously, Sundt added. “All week at Heritage and Twilight, it was just the way [Gaggioli] was riding,” Sundt said. “It was a week in coming. It should have never gotten to that point. I think [Health Net’s] John Lieswyn put it best when he said we should have sat down with a coffee or a beer and worked it out before it escalated. I don’t think I have the reputation of a fighter, and at the same time Roberto does. The guy rides like that, and everyone knows it. He was hooking me, but that’s not the point.”
Said Gaggioli: “I always try to avoid fighting. There are many people that want to fight after the race; they feel like I push them too hard. Twenty years I’ve been racing my bike. If someone punches me with their elbow, I will punch them back, and I know how to. Eighty percent of the field don’t come next to me, because they know I’m a good bike rider.
“It’s respect, too. If there is the whole Health Net train doing a lead out, they’ll let me in because I have some respect from them. I didn’t win 200 races for nothing. If Gord Fraser wants the wheel in front of me, I give it to him, and if I want the wheel in front of Gord, he’ll give it to me. I don’t even know Jonny Sundt. I never saw him before, and he’s trying to be up there with the best guys when he doesn’t really have it.”
The whole thing finally came to a head in Anniston. According to Gaggioli, Sundt reached over and gave the Italian a push in Anniston within the last five wet laps.
“We were coming down to the last five laps and he pushed me with his hand in a corner,” Gaggioli said. “He pushed me off the road. I stayed on the bike, but any other rider would have crashed. The Health Net guys saw it.” Sundt neither confirmed nor denied the push, saying only that there was some bumping going on.
Immediately after the race — Gaggioli took ninth, Sundt took 14th — Sundt said he saw the Monex rider approaching him.
“I saw him get off his bike, and I thought he wanted to have a chat,” Sundt said. “But he took apart one of the police barriers and had this two-by-four in his hands. It is a really physical sport, but I didn’t know it was going to go to that degree. I’d already set my bike down, because I thought maybe he wanted to square up. At the last minute I picked up my bike and blocked [the two-by-four].”
Gaggioli denied the two-by-four tale. “Those are just rumors,” Gaggioli said. “It’s not true.” When asked how he accounted for the dent in Sundt’s frame, Gaggioli answered, “I don’t know. Maybe he crashed.”
According to Sundt, Gaggioli then dropped the wood and took a swing, striking Sundt’s helmet. Gaggioli doesn’t deny that the pair went to blows. “After the finish we got to confronting each other,” he said. “We went hand to hand.”
“It wasn’t much of a fight,” Sundt said. “I’m not a proponent of fighting, but I was a bit pissed. I’ve never been in an altercation at a race before, but literally he could have killed me. I got a handful of greasy ponytail and went to town. As soon as the race officials said to stop, I stopped. It was a bit of self-defense; I mean, this guy wanted to kill me.”
Once officials broke up the scuffle, Sundt filed a protest with the federation, although he and team director Rice decided not to press charges.
“We were told by the promoters to call the police and file charges,” Rice said. “We thought about it, and I made the decision that it was unnecessary. We decided to go through the USCF instead. That’s not what the Anniston citizens needed to see in the newspaper.”
Sundt echoed Rice’s sentiments. “I talked to Gord Fraser and John Lieswyn about it after it happened,” he said. “And I decided not to call the police. One, I wasn’t hurt, even though the potential was there; two, the race is great and I didn’t want to drag their race through the mud; and three, I didn’t want to tarnish my team’s image.”
Gaggioli denies acting any more wrongly than Sundt, saying that the only difference between their actions was Sundt’s decision to protest. “He was a little bit more into it and went to protest with the judges,” Gaggioli said. “I got DQ’d and he didn’t. We both were full fighting.”
But Sundt and Rice say five witnesses signed statements to USA Cycling attesting that Gaggioli had indeed assaulted Sundt with a piece of wood.
“There are a bunch of witnesses,” Rice said. “It’s not like it was in some back alley. There were a couple of guys that saw the whole thing.”
That there exist a handful of signed statements is one of the few facts USCF Southeast regional coordinator George Heagerty would confirm.
“It’s probably too early for me to comment on this, as it’s going to be determined by a panel on Monday,” Heagerty said. “I don’t want to step out of bounds or jeopardize the ongoing investigation. The federation is going to great lengths to see that this is handled fairly and in due process. I have reports from both riders involved, and I have four or five eyewitness-signed statements. As painstaking as this process is, it’s in the interest of the athlete. We want to make sure that no one is unjustly penalized.”
Beyond that, Heagerty recommended I speak with Shawn Farrell, USA Cycling’s technical director of rules and officials. A few coy rounds of phone tag with Farrell left me with only this voice mail to work with: “I think I know what you want to talk about, and all I can tell you is I can talk about it on Monday.”
Whether the dent was caused by a crash or a two-by-four, Sundt’s aluminum Klein frame is ruined. “Roberto folded the down tube on Jonny’s Klein,” Rice said. “If this was Jonny’s skull, it could have been deadly. I’m trying to get Monex to pay for the bike, but so far they haven’t responded.”
Meanwhile, Gaggioli is appealing a one-year suspension. On Thursday, the Italian sprinter contacted cycling attorney Bob Mionkse, who specializes in legal issues facing endurance athletes. Mionske said he expects the case will come down to an interpretation of the USCF’s rules of conduct.
“I have a hearing Monday afternoon,” Gaggioli said. “They want to suspend me for a year because I was defending myself. I have to appeal it. That would be pretty bad. I’ve done for a lot for cycling in the U.S. I’m the director at Monex. I have a lot of young guys, and a lot to teach them. [A suspension] would be unfair.”
As for Sundt, he said: “What happens now isn’t in either of our hands. I feel like I took the high road by not pressing charges, but if he gets a slap on the wrist I’ll be really disappointed.
Meanwhile, the erstwhile combatants have swapped apologies and ridden in the peloton together without incident.
“We raced again last week and we both apologized to each other,” said Gaggioli. “I told him that was not cool to do. I accepted his apology, and he accepted mine. We have to race together. I told him, ‘Don’t take your hand off the handlebars, that’s not cool.’ He said that’s right. When you take your arm off, that’s a little too much.”
Said Sundt: “We cleared the air a little bit. Obviously we’re not riding down the street holding hands. I’ll admit I was a little bit on edge the first time we raced against each other afterwards. I thought maybe he’d try and crash me. I mean, if you’re going to pick up a two-by-four, there’s not a lot of rational thought going on.
“We’re still riding in the same peloton and we’re both being professional. I’m glad we can soldier on. There are lots of guys in the peloton that don’t like each other, but when it’s said and done we all strap our helmets on and go out and ride the next day. It is a sport. We’re doing this for a living.”
What do you think about this two-fisted tale from the trenches? Drop us a line at email@example.com or we’ll put a dent in your down tube.