“It was always Aldo who believed in me. He often believed in me more than I did.”
– Cadel Evans, Tour de France champion (July 2011)
The 13th of December marks the anniversary of the passing of Aldo Sassi. The Italian was called a coach by some, a mentor by others. He had an enormous influence on the cycling world and many champions can credit his influence as being a key to their success.
In this flashback from RIDE #51, Cameron Wurf writes about the influence that Sassi had on him, the peloton and the cycling world…
Coach, friend, and inspiration
Aldo Sassi: 28 April 1959 – 13 December 2010
By Cameron Wurf
He helped guide riders to a level of success that surpassed their expectations. He established the Mapei Centre in Castellanza, Italy, and offered advice to some of the biggest stars in cycling. He insisted on a clean approach and was a strong anti-doping crusader. Aldo Sassi died late last year after succumbing to the effects of brain cancer.
One of “his riders” explains what it was like to know the man who will be missed by many.
Aldo Sassi’s special quality was his ability to coach a rider as a person. The physical was one part but what was most important was having an honest relationship with his athletes. My first encounter with Aldo was an email I received from him following a test at the Mapei Centre in Italy that Cadel Evans organised for me. He wanted me to know that he had come into the lab during my VO2 max test and observed without my knowledge of his presence. Based on my results, he told me: “I think your future in the cycling world could be very good.”
I was shocked at receiving such a note from one of cycling’s esteemed patrons. Some time passed until I finally worked up the courage to ask to meet him. He obliged and we met on the final Thursday of the 2008 Tour de France in his office at the Mapei Centre. He knew why I was there and was not interested in wasting time; I realised – there and then – that he was a busy man. Time was precious to him so I didn’t want to waste it.
He said he was interested in my physiology, as I had recently changed from rowing, and would be interested in coaching me and seeing how I responded to his program. He made it very clear that doping is not tolerated and that he reserved the right to independently test his athletes’ blood whenever he felt like it. Aldo then welcomed me to be one of his riders.
I was told he was available 24 hours a day should there ever be any issues. He quickly prepared my first program, which lasted four weeks. It included, as I would later learn, all of his favourite sessions and tests out on the road.
At first glance I was pretty shocked at the intensity, but then even more surprised when I saw I was to start immediately with “3hrs 30min strength training” – that afternoon!
With the program in my hand he called our first meeting to an end and walked me to the door. Before I exited, he stopped suddenly and asked for the program back so he could sign it. It was very important to Aldo that his program had his “stamp”, as he put it, on the bottom right-hand corner of the page; such was the pride he obviously had for his work. This was when I realised that I was perhaps the luckiest new cyclist in the world; in my hand I had an autographed program by the great Aldo Sassi. His signed programs would become my cycling bible.
Aldo was not just a coach but also a friend. He wanted to know that all was okay in your life and would always ask about the health and wellbeing of your family. By him knowing so much about his athletes personally he was able to prescribe programs which he knew they were capable of doing. It was important to him that you embraced his methods; otherwise you were wasting your own time and, more importantly, his. He always checked that the program was okay and, once he signed it, it meant that you had agreed to get stuck into it.
His signature seemed to have more and more importance every time he signed a new one for me.
During different times he would always find a way to keep me focused on the long-term goal, he knew exactly what to say whenever times got tough and this meant that if things were a little difficult or something was troubling me, I would want to tell him. Sometimes it was reassuring words, sometimes easy training was required and sometimes programs you would normally never comprehend were quickly prepared.
No matter what the situation, Aldo knew what to do.
I never second-guessed his advice and things always turned out for the best. His caring nature was reflected in his beautiful family and in the way the Mapei Centre in Castellanza was run. As soon as you walk through the door it feels like you are home. Everybody is always happy to see you and, no matter how busy they are, take the time to catch up. One day as I was leaving the centre having been there the entire day for testing, I thanked Manuella the receptionist for all the running around and organisation she had done for me. Her response was typical of people at this place: “Don’t be so silly, you a part of the Mapei family and we are there to do anything for you anytime because that’s what families do.”
Not only was I so hugely honoured to know that I was included in this family but I gained even greater admiration for what Aldo had created. I imagine, for him, going to work was very enjoyable every day as he always had family around him.
To see how all his staff looked up to him exemplified just what impact he had on the whole Mapei family. As one of his riders, Aldo liked to personally be in the lab during my testing to ensure all went along smoothly and that the data was correct. His protective nature of his boys meant that he would personally take our blood lactates. His routine on testing day would be to first wait until the warming-up was out of the way before entering the lab. His busy schedule and time constraints meant no minute of the day could be spent idle. There always seemed to be someone not far away that needed his help and he wanted to give them his attention.
Upon entering the lab he announced his arrival by making the loudest rubber glove snap as he pulled them on and rolled his sleeves up ready for work. It made me laugh every time. I figured it was his way of saying we have important testing to do so let’s get into it. He insisted on taking blood lactate from the ear. I think he quietly enjoyed squeezing it as hard as he could until you showed some discomfort. Not wanting to ever show weakness to him, I always put up with having my ears stretched a few extra millimetres each time he wanted to take a sample.
When Aldo was in the lab there was always that extra notch of excitement around. The other physiologists would be taking the opportunity to ask that extra question, all keen to learn all they could from the great man. Also, Aldo’s attendance usually meant a star rider was in the lab. Obviously this was the case for all of Aldo’s athletes, excluding me. When I was there, the environment was more of intrigue: “Why was Aldo so interested in me?” I could see them thinking. This, however led to a bit more intrigue about me and all the staff were always trying to get to know me better and do anything they could to help.
If Aldo was prepared to support a rider then all the staff were completely behind that rider, such was the respect and admiration they had for him. True to his never-able-to-stay-idle manner, he would pace up and down the lab while I was being put through my paces. While the other staff stood patiently looking on, I could hear the ‘clap, clap, clap’ of Aldo’s leather shoes on the tile floor as he paced back and forth and beside me on the bike. It was certainly not a mindless pacing, I could tell it was the act of a professor thinking and working on ways, no doubt, to improve his centre or the athlete. He was always looking at ways to help someone or improve something.
With testing completed, the results were briefly discussed but of course needed closer analysis and a meeting in his office would be required for this. Everything was done meticulously. If you were prepared to put in the work he would ensure that the analysis was done properly. This meant he needed some time to be sure of his feedback. If the analysis happened to be at lunch, we would all wash up and head off to a local restaurant and enjoy a pizza or pasta. This time gave Aldo the opportunity to catch up with you about all things other than cycling; he always wanted to know more about you as a person.
His relationship with me was, I feel certain, one of much frustration. He always would show his belief in me and talk about what I was capable of. Sometimes things started heading in the direction that was planned and then I would have a pitiful performance period and it was back to square one.
He would never allow me to dwell, and immediately looked at the positives to get me back on track. The past was done and we needed to move forward. He would happily tell me I had underperformed or had not done what I should have, but in the same sentence reiterate that he believed in me and would say something to put the smile back on my face.
I would leave his office with my training bible under my arm, autographed as always by Aldo himself, with absolute dedication to do what was prescribed and all would work out. I always walked out of his office a few inches taller.
With Aldo I always felt safe. With him in my corner I never needed to second-guess anything and I knew he was always looking out for me. When the good days came, the recognition was always there: be it in training or racing, when a compliment was deserved, he would give it. One instance that really struck me about his care for us was regarding a motor-pace session I did not long before leaving for the Tour de Langkawi in 2009.
The feedback for the training was simply: “Jessica is very good at motor-pacer, perhaps the best I have seen.”
Jessica is my girlfriend. It was Aldo’s way of acknowledging that, yes, I may be training well but I needed to be grateful for all those around me who were contributing to my progress. Small lessons reminded me that life was bigger than the bike.
I think when I graduated from university was perhaps the proudest I have seen him of me. After that he would call me “doctor” which is the custom for people with degrees in Italy. Cadel once said to me that Aldo does not pay compliments unless they are warranted and he truly believes in what he is saying to you. Of course this worked both ways so when he dished out some criticism you certainly listened and did anything you could to fix the downfall. He was one of those unique individuals to whom you listened whenever he spoke and you acted upon whatever feedback was given to you.
Although he had many of the leading cyclists in the peloton, he never showed any type of favouritism. He let the road decide who was the strongest. He was confident in his work and felt if he could help, and you were prepared to do the work, then you would be the best you could be; the outcome looked after itself.
It was easy for me to think it was no big deal as I was obviously absolutely the bottom rider in his group. For me it was so inspirational and an honour to share the program of all Aldo’s star riders and he would often use comparisons with me to motivate me to push harder or believe in myself.
In the bunch, although all from different teams, he created a team within a team. Aldo’s boys were often together in the bunch. We would often discuss training programs together, and simply talk about what a great coach Aldo is. All around him he would create a family atmosphere which seemed to always grow around you. He was held in such high regard that if you were lucky enough to have his support then so many more would be there to support you as well. Coming from Australia and being in Varese 20,000km from home, the support of Aldo, his centre and the extended friendships that result from the affiliation made Italy seem like home. His impact on these relationships is truly unquantifiable.
Aldo Sassi has truly changed my life. When I met him I had many dreams and desires with no idea how to make them happen. He decided to take me under his wing and guide me through the sport to a point I had dreamed of, but in reality knew would most likely not happen. When we first met he asked my goals in the sport, I said I want to work for a big leader in the Tour de France as I felt it was the best way for me to learn quickly in the sport. In 2011, thanks to what Aldo has taught me, I expect to do so alongside Ivan Basso.
Aldo’s contribution to cycling could never be summed up in words. He had such a significant impact on the sport he loved and his legacy will live on forever.
The Mapei Centre in Castellanza, which he built and directed, has become the pivotal and leading private training institute in cycling and this season no less than three of the top teams in the sport will use its resources for all their physical and biomechanical services. Throw in another list of the world’s leading riders as long as your arm and it is clear to see just how great the magnitude of respect the leaders in the cycling world have for Aldo Sassi and his training methodology.
He has touched so many lives and changed the lives of so many more. It may be a cliché, but there is no way in the world I would be in the position I am in today had it not been for the guiding hand Aldo held out to me to help me achieve my dreams. His teaching will live on in all those he touched in the form of Aldo’s cycling gospel – forever.
– Cameron Wurf
* * * * *
The value of diligence
– By Charlie Wegelius
“Aldo stood patiently behind me through my whole career even during hard times. In 2003 when I gave a high haematocrit reading, he believed in me and publically defended me when it would have been easier to just look the other way. He helped me to become an athlete, but also a man, and I will never forget that gift.
“He followed my training year by year with the same passion and commitment that he had with more high-profile riders. All he ever asked from me was hard work done with passion; at times that was hard to live up to, but I am glad he taught me the value of diligence. I think all his riders will miss him dearly. I feel sad that I never had the chance to give him back as much as he gave to me.”