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Savio aiming for big time in 2016 with Venezuelan backing

Fiery Italian Gianni Savio is building toward the sport's top level and isn't afraid to ruffle feathers of his rivals along the way

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LEON, Spain (VN) — Gianni Savio, one of the most nimble team managers in cycling, is hoping to finally arrive to the big time with backers from Venezuela.

The charismatic Savio has been an institution of sorts in the Italian peloton for nearly three decades, cobbling together a quilt of small, but devoted sponsors to build the longest running Professional Continental team in Italy, now under the banner of Androni Giocattoli-Venezuela.

Savio has never had a singular, big-dollar backer — he insists by his own choosing so he can remain in full control — but that could change if Venezuela delivers on its promise to invest heavily in cycling.

“The project we are working on with the Venezuelan government is to end up with a team that will be in the WorldTour by the Olympic cycle of 2016,” Savio told VeloNews. “The idea is to develop Venezuelan cyclists and help them progress, not only in Latin America, but at the world level.”

That doesn’t leave much time to reach cycling’s top league, but Savio is confident that Venezuelan officials will put up the money to have a major budget to race on the UCI WorldTour, perhaps as early as the 2015 season. The South American nation is, however, mired in economic crisis, with inflation edging toward 50 percent in the first year of president Nicolas Maduro’s six-year term after winning a controversial vote that followed the death of Hugo Chávez.

See our behind-the-scenes gallery with Savio’s team from the 2011 Giro d’Italia >>

Top teams a ‘disgrace’

Venezuela linked up with Savio two years ago, and has been a major co-sponsor of his team since. Going into the 2014 season, Savio will have several promising, young Venezuelan riders on his 18-man roster, including Yonder Gondoy and Carlos Jimenez.

“We always win a lot of races,” Savio said proudly of his teams. “I think it’s a disgrace that so-called ‘WorldTour’ teams go to a race like the Giro (d’Italia) or the Vuelta (a España), and finish with just two riders. We always respect the race, always attack, always animate the race.”

Savio, 65, has deep roots in South America. It was Colombia, however, not Venezuela, where he had his first major successes.

Following the boom in Colombian cycling in the 1980s, Savio started to mine the Andean nation for undiscovered talent, bringing over a string of riders in the 1990s and early 2000s to join his Italian outfit.

He also served as Colombia’s national team coach, and helped engineer Latin America’s only road world title, when Santiago Botero won the 2002 rainbow jersey in the individual time trial.

Shifting across the Andes

For someone so long aligned with Colombia, it might seem odd to see Savio building a new network in neighboring Venezuela. Savio said he switched allegiances of sorts following changes internally within the Colombian cycling federation. A long-time Savio ally died, and new officials came in, looking to create what would become today’s Colombia Pro Continental team without Savio. (Savio’s countryman Claudio Corti is the general manager of the Colombia team.)

“At the same time as the changes in Colombia, the Venezuelans approached me, with their ambitions to promote the sport internationally,” said Savio. “Everyone there wants to see the sport develop internationally.”

Colombia and Venezuela, neighbors along the northern half of South America, have evolved dramatically differently over the decades.

While Colombia has produced a long string of homegrown talent, from the escarabajos back in the 1980s to today’s latest crop of talent, including Tour de France best young rider Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Giro d’Italia runner-up Rigoberto Urán (Sky), Sergio Henao (Sky), and Carlos Betancur (Ag2r La Mondiale), Venezuela has, in sharp contrast, delivered few major stars.

That’s something that the Venezuelans hope to change, in part by backing Savio and his Europe-based cycling team.

Savio’s greatest find was gnomish Venezuelan climber José Rujano, who nearly rode away with the 2005 Giro d’Italia. The pair had an acrimonious falling out, not once, but twice, the last time coming during the 2012 Giro.

“I’ve signed a young rider whom everyone will soon be hearing about named Carlos Jimenez, whom I have under contract until 2017,” Savio explained. “He is very much like José Rujano, who I also discovered, but fortunately, Jimenez has a very different mentality than Rujano. Rujano is a man of low moral character, and treated us badly. In fact, I kicked him off the team, and we do not have any more contact with him. We call Jimenez ‘Rujanito’ (Little Rujano), but fortunately, he’s nothing like Rujano off the bike.”

Savio’s modest budget for next year is only 2.5 million euros — barely a tenth of big-budget WorldTour team such as Astana and Sky — but Savio is optimistic about the future.

“It’s something I love, this challenge to develop the sport in Venezuela,” Savio said. “Colombia already had a tradition and culture of cycling. What I hope to do now is try to make something along the same lines in Venezuela. I believe we can achieve some big things.”