It was recently announced that Dario Cioni would be one of four directeurs sportif at Team Sky in 2014. The former rider who was born in Reading, Great Britain and raised in Italy has a most varied resumé. His career began as a mountain biker; he switched to the road and raced with the Mapei team alongside Cadel Evans when the pair made their Grand Tour debut at the Giro d’Italia in 2002; by 2004 Cioni would reach as high as fourth overall at the Giro (behind Damiano Cunego, Sergei Honchar and Gilberto Simoni) but his reputation was as a domestique. His final years as a racer were spent with Sky in 2010 and 2011.
In 2012 he was still clad in black and blue and working for Sky but now as the team’s media liaison officer. The English born Italian was the one who ushered both Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome around the compound in the zone technique during their victorious campaigns at the Tour de France.
In 2014 Cioni will be a directeur sportif. The ‘news’ doesn’t come as a great surprise. He was a great bike rider, a man of humility and grace who often sacrificed himself at the service of others. He was a good tactician as a rider and he understands the structure at Sky.
Olive oil is a frequent topic of conversation with the 39-year-old as that’s part of the family business but it’s cycling that has paid most of his salary since the mid-1990s.
Cioni was a team-mate of Evans in 2002, 2007 and 2008. The man who literally ushered the future winner of the Tour de France to the top of the Passo Coe in 2002 (with the Mapei team) would ride alongside the Australian in both of the seasons he finished runner-up in the Tour (with Predictor-Lotto and Silence-Lotto). The two were both graduates from MTB. They both have a great love of cycling and an appreciation for the sport but Cioni sees it differently now to Evans. Three years older and two seasons still involved but no longer on the saddle plying his trade.
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Back in 2008, after finishing the post-Tour edition of RIDE Cycling Review I spent six weeks in Europe talking to people involved with Cadel Evans and his ride to the podium of the Tour de France. High on the interview list was Dario Cioni.
It was Cioni who I conjure in my mind when I think ‘domestique’. There are other who have served Evans over the years who also appear when I consider the title: Charly Wegelius (who has written a book on the topic of working for others), Johan Vansummeren, Chris Horner, Robbie McEwen, Matt Lloyd, Mario Aerts, Jurgen van den Broeck, Wim Vansevenant… there is a long list. They all have stories of times when they were racing their bikes in some of the world’s toughest races in the hope that someone else – a team-mate – would win.
There is honour in cycling. There are people who understand the sport, its heritage and its idiosyncrasies: Cioni is one of them. He has worked hard while others have achieved success, on the bike and off it. He was racing at a time when the effect of doping was all around. He has been near the podium of a Grand Tour as a leader and close to victory as domestique.
He made his debut in a three-week race at the age of 27 as an Italian on an Italian team with an Italian leader in an Italian race, but he ultimately worked for a rider who was three-and-a-half years younger and became the first Australian to lead the Giro d’Italia.
After 16 stages, victory on debut in the Giro seems plausible for Evans. But then came the Passo Coe…
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On 18 October 2008 I sat down with Cioni to talk about Evans. It was at the very end of the season. Most riders were tired but the Giro di Lombardia was yet to be raced. A few days before the final ‘Monument’ of cycling for the year a domestique talked about his role. It’s a conversation that reminds me a lot about what’s good about cycling. Amidst a rotten Giro, came a story of honour on a day when victory raced away from a champion of the future.
Cioni was alongside Evans at the finish of stage 17 of the Giro’s 17th stage but he wasn’t there at the start of the final climb. The explanation of how he came to be alongside Evans for the final kilometres of this epic stage remain fresh in my memory when thinking of the word domestique. (Here is a transcript of our exchange that day.)
RIDE: A good introduction to Cadel was what happened on the Passo Coe [in stage 17 of the 2002 Giro d’Italia] because we got to see what I think a lot of people agree was a bit of an honest performance. It was quite spectacular. I’ve followed cycling for a long time and I don’t think I’ve seen such a spectacular collapse. Can you tell me about your experience because you were key to getting him to the top of the hill weren’t you?
Dario Cioni: “Yeah, I was to ride to the second to last climb and then [Andrea] Noè was the last man. Basically my job was to go up until the second to last climb which I think it was Saint-Anne or something like that [actually Passo Bordala]. It was quite steep and then there was a difficult descent, a flat section and then we started the Passo Coe. That was up to Folgari and then to the top.
“My thing was to get as far as possible and possibly to the last climb. Then there was still Noè and Cadel himself to do the job.
“I started when I think there was a breakaway and the second to last climb was quite steep so I just set a tempo so that people were not attacking – or not attacking and getting too far ahead.
“I think eventually Tonkov attacked but I cannot remember if he made it over the top or was just slightly in front of us. But he never got that much time anyway.
“We knew it would be difficult. It was the stage that would decide the Giro.
“He [Cadel] had the pink jersey and we had a lot of confidence in him.
“It had been a very hard and strange Giro d’Italia because when we started out, we were meant to be riding for [Stefano] Garzelli and then there was that strange positive case that ruined our plans and eventually Cadel came out good. He eventually also took the pink jersey to a bit of everyone’s surprise. Most of the [Mapei] team thought that the Giro was over when Garzelli went away. But Cadel had some good rides in the Dolomites and that would be the deciding stages.”
[Cadel] became a leader by default. Was it ever part of the plan for him to be the leader? Or it was just that he rode well and he ended up that way.
“At the beginning Cadel’s position was to be a key man in the mountains for Garzelli. The team had not planned for him specifically to be the leader because it was his first Grand Tour. And by then he had had a really hard season up until then anyway. He had started season at the Tour Down Under and had been very good and was racing a lot.
“I remember in [the Vuelta al] Paìs Vasco he was very good and that is not an easy race anyway. But we had started [the Giro] with a clear leader and Cadel was to be one of the key men in the mountains but then he proved that he could be even better. I think no one really expected he could get into pink.”
Then, when the collapse happened, it was [Tyler] Hamilton who started the move. And then Tonkov won the stage. At the moment that it was lights out, were you with Cadel at that stage or did you catch up to him later?
“No. I caught up to him one-and-a-half kilometres from the top.
“I think I pulled for about 30km on my own and setting up a good tempo and then, of course, when I did my job it’s not that I just stayed there and tried to keep going.
“When I’ve done my job, I take it as easy as possible. I go into energy savings mode because I was thinking about the next day because that is how I’ve been taught to be a domestique: to ride, do your job and then save energy for the days after.
“Basically I started the last climb leading the leading group and then when I said, ‘Okay, I’m finished…’ Noè started to ride. And I just took it as easy as possible. I just put the chain on the biggest cog on my cluster and went easy. I wasn’t even looking at the groups going by or considering the riders who were going past me…
“Then, I could hear on the radio that Frigo had cracked before [Cadel] did. And then I thought it was good [because he was the last real threat to the GC]. Then I heard that Hamilton had attacked and I heard on the radio the DS say to Cadel, ‘Okay, go tempo. And keep them in sight…’ and then the distance was growing and the radio signal was no longer too clear. I thought, ‘Okay, he’s losing a bit of time but he’s got a bit of an advantage anyway…’
“The rider we were most afraid of was Frigo anyway so he [Cadel] had a time cushion and there was still a time trial to come. So I was still okay: sure, he was losing time but it’s not a big deal. And I still went up as easy as possible.
“Eventually it was strange because I got near the top to where the big crowds were and, I think with about two kilometres to go, I sort of saw a car, the team car, ahead of me. I thought, ‘Huh, that is strange. It must have a breakdown.’ I really thought the car had stopped because of a breakdown. And that it was just waiting on the side of the road. But it was still driving along slowly.
“At one point, I thought I saw pink. I said, ‘No. It’s not possible. It must be a spectator.’ And then, as I got closer and closer I realised it was Cadel. Noè was also there. Then I realised what had happened and I just stayed there and tried to get him to the finish.
“I remember quite clearly telling him, ‘Come on Cadel, great job anyway, but…
“The day after he told me, ‘I know you were speaking to me but I cannot remember what you were saying.’ He was so blanked out that he couldn’t connect anymore.”
I remember the scenes. You were giving him your jacket at the finish and were being clearly very sympathetic. He has talked to me about the day and he remember telling his body just to keep pedalling and that he went 300-400 metres past the finish line. It was a real haze. There were moments when it looked like he would literally fall off his bike…
“He had really collapsed. He was going very, very slow.”
Did you think for a moment that you had to hold him upright?
“No, it wasn’t quite that bad but I could understand that he was in discomfort.”
Have you, in your experience, ever seen anyone collapse to such an extent?
“Okay, I’ve felt like that sometimes. And I’ve seen riders in the grupetto just bonk they’re in big trouble and they’re going really slow… I had a similar experience on the Alpe d’Huez and it’s not nice.”
What did it give you in your perception of Cadel’s nature from that day? Did you think this is a guy I want to work with or that he was a failure?
“Oh no, no… for sure he wasn’t a failure. His season had not been managed so that he was in peak form for the Giro. I think what he did anyway was amazing. Just to be able to start, not as the leader and do what he did.
“I’m sure the team was just thinking, ‘Okay, we’ll take him to a Grand Tour and see what he can do.’ It was like an experiment. No one really knew that would really make it. For me, him taking pink was a great achievement and it proved that he was really going to do something in the future.”
In Italy, what was the perception like? Was it a feeling of, ‘This Australian has let the team down’?
“In Italy it was a big surprise. It’s not often that a newcomer to the road scene can lead the Giro d’Italia. He had been a World Cup winner in the mountain bikes so it’s not that it you could say that it was a surprise – it was a surprise on the road scene. It’s not often that a rider in their first year as a professional can do something like that.
“It’s not that he got the pink jersey by getting in a break and gaining minutes. He had just fought for it as a leader.”
Since 2002, what’s your estimation of Cadel? You’ve since ridden with him when he’s finished second twice in the Tour de France. Is there any moment in those two Tours that you thought he could have saved time?
“Once you have finished the race it is easy to say maybe we made a mistake here or there but that’s the race situation. When you are inside the race, you don’t have a clear vision. That is the vision your have afterwards when you sit down and analyse everything very carefully. But then if you remember in the race you were really going through a difficult spot – maybe trying to close a gap or something else was happening… and that could have modified all of the things that happened after.
“From one perspective it’s a shame that he got twice second because it was so close both times – with one minute less in two Tours, he could have won! But it’s difficult to say that he lost here or there. He might have lost some time during one stage but he could have gained time elsewhere.
“A tour is a tour. It’s not a single day event. A lot of things must go well all the way. It’s not just in the race, there are a lot of things that affect the results. It’s complicated.”
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This exchange may have been based around a stretch of 14km from a race that took place 12 years ago, but it’s still relevant as it reminds us that Cadel Evans was an outstanding cyclist from the beginning of his road racing career. It also offers some insight into the thinking of a domestique who is about to become a directeur sportif for one of the world’s most powerful teams.
Dario, thanks for offering your take on a most interesting moment. We wish you all the best in your new post at Team Sky in 2014 and beyond.
– By Rob Arnold