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Two nights before the 2017 Strade Bianche, WorldTour teams huddled around the dinner table, laughing and relaxing before the big battle. Many of them were chattering away in Italian. The scene didn’t seem extraordinary in any way. Yet, it was, for one simple reason: Despite the fact that a number of the teams at the hotels sprinkled across the Tuscan landscape were loaded with Italian riders and staff, not one that held WorldTour status was actually Italian.
“It’s funny, because tonight we are speaking Italian at the dinner table, but it’s not always like that,” said Fabrizio Guidi, a sport director at Cannondale-Drapac. “The first language in the peloton today is English. This is a global world, and the peloton is like that, too.”
The scene reflects a brave new world for Italy, which was once the gravitational center of cycling. A traditional powerhouse within the sport, Italy has been left in cycling’s rear-view mirror, thanks to global forces pressuring the country’s teams and riders. Lampre-Merida, which was Italy’s most recent WorldTour team, shuttered at the end of 2016. Today, Italy’s cyclists, team directors, and soigneurs are scattered across the WorldTour, employed by teams with foreign national affiliation.
Guidi, for instance, discussed team tactics ahead of Strade Bianche as an Italian ex-pro leading a team of riders from seven different countries (on the eight-rider roster), with sponsors from America and Australia. The only thing Italian that night was the hotel, the pasta dinner, and promising 23-year-old Alberto Bettiol.
Indeed, as the Giro d’Italia celebrates its centenary edition, for the first time in the Italian grand tour’s history, there will not be a major, WorldTour-level Italian team on the start list.
“Having no major Italian teams is not just a problem for the Giro d’Italia,” says Giro boss Mauro Vegni. “It is a problem for all of cycling. No one is happy about this.”
THE ITALIAN PELOTON HAS slowly atrophied from its peak in the early 2000s, when it boasted four major, top-level teams and six more second-tier teams. Since then, Italy has seen its major cycling teams slowly die off. The shuttering of Lampre-Merida was a shock to many.
The culprit? Italy’s long-running economic crisis has fueled high unemployment rates and tightened purse strings across government and business alike. Today, there are simply fewer companies who are willing to spend millions of Euros on cycling.
“Not having an Italian team is unfortunate. It’s something that no one could have imagined,” says Brent Copeland, who managed Lampre for years and made the switch to start-up Bahrain-Merida in 2017. “There was a big effort to find an Italian sponsor with [Vincenzo] Nibali, but it didn’t happen. I think it’s purely economical.”
Amid stagnancy, Italy’s private sector is steering clear 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. Bike companies Trek, BMC, Cannondale, Giant, and Specialized all support teams as primary or secondary sponsors, but in Italy, bike companies Pinarello, Bianchi, and Colnago are content to remain in the background as gear sponsors only.
The good news last year was the entrée into cycling of Italian coffee maker Segafredo. But Segafredo decided to link up with the U.S.-based Trek team — already an established player inside the peloton — rather than build a new team from the ground up.
“They didn’t want to start a new team, but looked for an established partner,” says Italian manager Luca Guercilena at Trek-Segafredo. “Starting a new team these days is simply too expensive. We are lucky to have earned their confidence, but it is a shame there are not more Italian companies with cycling right now.”
[pullquote align=”right” attrib=”Stefano Zannini”]We have created a ‘Little Italy’ here on Astana. It is true there is not a big Italian sponsor now, but Italian cycling is still very big. We hope that can change.”[/pullquote]
Last year, Italy’s biggest star, Vincenzo Nibali, tried in vain to start his own team with Italian backers. Nibali even courted pasta giant Barilla. After a fruitless search, the 2014 Tour de France winner (Italy’s first since 1998) settled on financial backing from the Middle East monarchy of Bahrain, despite its dubious human rights record.
“I wanted to start a new team with Italian sponsors, but no one has the courage to bet on a WorldTour team,” Nibali told website Tutto Bici. “It’s a tough economy now in Italy, and many companies, even if they like cycling, are unwilling to make the investment.”
Without a WorldTour squad, Italy is left with only four second-division teams: Bardiani-CSF, Androni-Giocattoli, Wilier-Southeast and Nippo-Vini Fantini. Of those, only two — Wilier and Bardiani — will race the Giro.
AS GRIM AS THAT might seem, Italian heritage continues to hum along inside the peloton.
When Lampre-Merida closed at the end of 2016, the team’s staff and managers split into Nibali’s Bahrain-Merida on one side and UAE-Abu Dhabi on the other.
In fact, Italian DNA can be found in the peloton in impressive quantities. Italy actually has more WorldTour riders in the peloton than any other nation. For 2017, there are 61 Italian WorldTour pros, which puts it ahead of France, Belgium, Spain, and the Netherlands.
Italians have created enclaves under the banners of other sponsors and nations. Astana, for example, employs Italian staffers, as well as eight riders including superstar Fabio Aru. The same is true at BMC Racing, which employs five Italian riders and three (of five) sport directors. Team Sky has four Italian riders, Bahrain nine, and UAE-Abu Dhabi boasts 14.
Call it the Great Italian Diaspora.
“We have created a ‘Little Italy’ here on Astana,” says ex-pro Stefano Zannini. “It is true there is not a big Italian sponsor now, but Italian cycling is still very big. We hope that can change.”
There could be long-term consequences to the scattering of Italian talent. Despite cycling’s newfound international flair, WorldTour teams still retain national affiliations, and recruit new talent from the home country. Italy’s best young cyclists will continue to get picked up, just as Sky picked up the highly touted Gianni Moscon, 22, last season. But will lesser riders struggle to find jobs? It’s unlikely that Orica-Scott or FDJ will grab a young Italian over an Australian or French rider of a similar level of talent.
“When I turned pro, there were many, many Italian teams looking to sign Italian riders. Today, the story has changed,” Guidi says. “The best young riders already have agents before they are pro, and that helps a lot, but what about the ones who are not big winners, but have big potential?”
THE SAVIOR OF ITALIAN cycling could be the Giro d’Italia, Guidi says. So long as the Italian tour remains popular, it can help mentor young Italian riders and teams toward the sport’s upper echelon.
“The Giro is fundamental. If the Giro remains important on the calendar, then teams will keep signing Italian riders,” Guidi says. “We would like to see more Italian sponsors, but all the teams will bring Italian riders because the Giro is very important to everyone.”
Italian racing remains strong, thanks in part to Giro owner RCS Sport. It also runs Tirreno-Adriatico, Strade Bianche, Milano-Sanremo, and Il Lombardia. There are still plenty of racing days in Italy, and the draw of everything Italian remains eternal.
In fact, Giro director Vegni says he’s not overly concerned by the lack of an Italian-backed WorldTour team in the Giro this year.
“While it’s true that cycling is a team sport, there is only one winner,” Vegni says. “We want the best riders in the race — Italians and those from other nations. People support the stars in cycling. They do not cheer for a team like it is Real Madrid or Manchester. They cheer for a Nibali or an Aru.”
Under that mindset, Italian cycling will always flourish, so long as its riders win major races. Its roots are too deep to die on the vine.