Squadra Azzurra: where to from here?

Although Tuscany has long been considered the heart of cycling in Italy, this year was the first time the world championships have been staged there. The 2013 Giro d’Italia champion Vincenzo Nibali was a big favourite for the rainbow jersey but he finished just off the podium in fourth place. Jean-François Quenet explains how this result is likely to mark the end of Paolo Bettini’s position as ‘C.T’ of the Squadra Azzurra and why another Tuscan, Michele Bartoli, is considered the likely successor…


Alfredo Marini and Paolo Bettini in discussion at the Giro d'Italia in May 2009. Photo: Yuzuru Sunada

Alfredo Marini and Paolo Bettini in discussion at the Giro d’Italia in May 2009.
Photo: Yuzuru Sunada


Is change coming to Italian cycling?


– By Jean-François Quenet


Three days prior to the 2013 road world championships in Florence, the Italian national team, including mechanics and soigneurs, drove from the camp base of Montecatini Terme to Sesto Fiorentino to pay a visit to Alfredo Martini. The honorary president of the Italian cycling federation and former national coach, 92, couldn’t attend the event as his health was not good.

It was the first time the worlds were held in Tuscany, the epicentre of Italian cycling and the region where Gino Bartali risked his life to save help Jewish residents during WWII. Strangely, ‘Gino the pious’ never talked about his heroism of this kind but historical research shows that he used his fame to pass road checks. He behaved as though he was training as per usual but inside the tubes of his bicycle frame, he hid false documentation that would ultimately lead to the escape some of the persecuted people in Assisi.

During the week of this year’s world championships, the winner of the 1938 and 1948 Tour de France was recognised as ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ in Jerusalem where a tree was planted in his honour.

A team-mate of Bartali’s arch rival Fausto Coppi when he won the 1952 Tour de France, Alfredo Martini became famous for his role as manager of the famous Squadra Azzurra from 1977 to 1997. During that time, the Italian team netted six gold medals, and 22 medals in silver and bronze. He is the wise man of Italian cycling.

After the visit of Vincenzo Nibali and his team-mates this September, he told Marco Pastonesi from La Gazzetta dello Sport: “I feel out of kilter, as if my 92-and-a-half years had fallen on me ad hoc. Inside me is affection and esteem but I don’t know how to give it back. The azzurri came to see me. They were smiling at me. There’s no nicer gift than a smile, because it is a ray of sunshine, it creates hopes and offers safety.

“Looking back, I believe that the bike and the sport of cycling have given me more than I gave them. I would have liked to give back double, but you need to accept your own limits, with honesty.”


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Alfredo Martini’s first memory of a world championship goes back as far as 1927, when he heard the live commentary on radio. “I was six years old,” he recalled. “I remember it as if it was the day before yesterday. Radio was a precious thing. There were only about 10 of them in our village of Calenzano.

“We gathered near the window of the house of a friend of mine to listen to what was happening in Germany on the circuit of Nürburgring. Four Italians took the first four places: Binda, Girardengo, Piemontesi and Belloni. The year after, I’ve seen the rainbow jersey for the first time. With a few friends, I went on my bicycle to watch the Giro d’Italia pass near our place during a stage from Pistoia to Modena. Binda, with these colours, was an apparition in my mind. It was enormously significant to me. Suddenly the world seemed bigger…

“Distances were different to how they are today. People lived and died without ever once going to the sea only 50 kilometres away. The bicycle has made a wonderful social contribution of the past 100 years. There are no constraints in using it. It does good things to the human’s body and mind.

“Whoever goes on a bike whistles, thinks, sings, smiles, contemplates.

“Whoever drives a car gets into a bad mood and withers…

“The bicycle has never disappointed me. It deserves the Nobel peace price.”


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Martini and Ballerini address the media prior to the world championships in 2005. Photo: Yuzuru Sunada

Martini and Ballerini address the media prior to the world championships in 2005.
Photo: Yuzuru Sunada



After a disastrous stint with Antonio Fusi at the helm of the national squad at the end of the 1990s, Martini convinced the bureaucrats of the Italian cycling federation to nominate another Tuscan with the same kind of charisma he’s got: Franco Ballerini. According to Martini, he was ideal for the job of ‘technical commissary’, or its diminutive ‘C.T.’ (pronounced: tcheetee). It includes a lot of public relations as well as being a selector and directing the team for the worlds. The double Paris-Roubaix winner (1995, 1998) was even more successful than his mentor as he delivered five major titles to his country in only nine years in the position: four road race world championships with Mario Cipollini (2002), Paolo Bettini (2006, 2007) and Alessandro Ballan (2008), and one Olympic road race title, Bettini (2004). But a tragedy occurred on 5 February 2010, during a local car rally – Ballerini’s second passion.

Luca Scinto, one of Ballerini’s close friends and neighbours, recalled that awful morning: “Just before the race, Franco called me to talk about the sponsor I had found for him. As the perfectionist he always was, he wanted my opinion to make sure that he had placed the logo well on the car. A few minutes later, I received a phone call saying that he was dead, I said, ‘Come on, I just hung up the phone with him.’ It was serious. Max Sciandri’s ex-wife Caterina rang me too. I jumped in my car and went straight to the hospital in Pistoia. I was there even before the ambulance, but only to see his body…”


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The course for the 2013 world championship started from Lucca where Cipollini was rumoured to have the honour of waving the flag to signal the official start. But he didn’t. The so-called ‘Lion King’ is an injured feline and a dethroned sovereign since La Gazzetta dello Sport revealed the history of his doping past with Dr Fuentes. The cyclist had been a contributor to the newspaper and was thus called into the office so he could read the story before it was published. He did that but he refused to comment. The story was printed.

The race passed through Casalguidi where Ballerini’s widow Sabrina and his two sons, Gianmarco and Matteo, now live. The previous village on the route was San Baronto, the home of this year’s most controversial pro cycling team Vini Fantini that was left devastated after the Giro d’Italia by the positive dope tests for EPO of Mauro Santambrogio and Danilo Di Luca.

San Baronto is on top of a hill, covered of encouragements for Giovanni Visconti who made this place his home 10 years ago as he moved from Sicily to succeed in cycling under the guidance of Scinto. “Down in the valley, at Mastromarco, there was another young Sicilian – Nibali,” Scinto recalled. “Their rivalry and those of their respective fan clubs lasted all week, before and after the races. Today they hug each other every time they meet in public but I can tell you, they still can’t stand each other.”

Scinto and his mate Angelo Citracca had built a development centre for Visconti and lthe likes of Andriy Grivko and Andrea Guardini. With local sponsors and a partnership with Ukrainian steel manufacturer ISD, they made their team a professional one in 2009. It became part of the comedia dell’arte to have this economically small outfit take the start of the Giro d’Italia. It would do just that and animate the race thanks to Scinto’s passion; Matteo Rabottini, for example, was the King of the Mountains in 2012.

Sciandri, now an assistant directeur sportif at BMC, recommended the rider who still had a contract with the American team for 2013. According to Scinto, however: “they didn’t want him anymore because he didn’t get on well with [head directeur sportif at the time] John Lelangue.”

The Vini Fantini team was short in cash and BMC offered them Santambrogio… and continued to pay his salary!

It was too good to be true – like Santambrogio’s results in 2013: fifth at the Tour de San Luis, seventh at Tirreno-Adriatico, second at Giro del Trentino, winner of the GP Larciano just around the corner from San Baronto…

The BMC management already had information about his doping practices the year before and used Vini Fantini as a rubbish bin in order to avoid any scandal, had the team just sacked the rider instead. Di Luca was a whole other story…

At the same time this was unfolding, Italy was looking for a replacement for Bettini as ‘C.T.’

The former world champion himself wants to move to another role, overlooking all categories of young cyclists and preparing the future of Italian cycling. He calls repeated failures at the helm of the Squadra Azzurra “a tabou”: three world championships plus one Olympics – and zero medals under his guidance.

This year, Nibali crashed in the rain and finished fourth.


Michele Bartoli attends the Ronde van Vlaanderen... as a spectator.  Photo: Yuzuru Sunada

Michele Bartoli attends the Ronde van Vlaanderen… as a spectator.
Photo: Yuzuru Sunada


An Italian magazine claims Scinto put his hand up for the job, citing his experience as road captain at the service of Michele Bartoli and Bettini in his trade teams (MG, Asics, Mapei) in the 1990s and his role for Cipollini’s success in the worlds at Zolder, Belgium in 2002. But Bettini who has always been close to Scinto chose Sciandri as his successor. The national federation even offered him the position, only to hear later that BMC wouldn’t release him. Sciandri, in fact, opted to stay on as a DS, so another name emerged during the week of the world championship in Tuscany. Another great Tuscan is now ready for the job: Bartoli.

“People from this land have character,” Martini stated. They have a fair few stories too…


– By Jean-François Quenet




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Author: rob@ride

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