In other words, almost anyone who works in professional cycling, the peloton being surrounded on all sides but below (why should the helicopter crews be immune?) by vehicles carrying colleagues who, by the third week of a Grand Tour, would probably be at each others’ throats were it not for professional scruple and an irrational, quite possibly unhealthy passion for the riders and their sport.
Put that way, it seems almost unthinkable that such a fraught context should also be the setting for some quality entertainment. But we’re forgetting Carpool Karaoke. And Starsky and Hutch. And, although you may be only subliminally aware of them, the route inspectors of the Giro d’Italia, for, in some of the most testing professional circumstances you could imagine, Marco Della Vedova and Maurizio Molinari are quite possibly the best company in Italy.
And there is a bit of Starsky and Hutch in them, even setting aside the red car. Molinari sports a Paul Michael Glaser-style rug in David Soul blond (all natural). As for Della Vedova, if you can imagine Huggy Bear as an Italian mountain lieutenant for Gilberto Simoni, you probably need counselling, but it’s not a bad approximation. For eleven Giri past, a constant stream of banter has been passing between them. They are among the principle reasons why the races run by RCS Sport are surprisingly joyous events to work on.
They are the quick response team of the big Italian races, driving just ten minutes ahead of the peloton for last-minute troubleshooting, thus forming part of that large subset of cycling workers who rarely get to see any actual cycling. For the purposes of television coverage, they might as well be in a parallel universe. In fact, they are at times pretty much the lords of this one, if the Giro d’Italia can be said to equate to the universe, which I think it probably can, for the duration of May each year.
Truth be told, the entire race organisation is the easiest of company – in particular, despite the weight of responsibility on their shoulders, cycling director Mauro Vegni and race director Stefano Allocchio. The chance to mull over a key stage with the men who hold the Giro in their hands is not to be missed, but they tend to be busy most race evenings. In any case, to wind down after a long, cold Giro stage, preceded and/or followed by a lengthy transfer, the ideal dinner table will always include Marco and Maurizio.
The day’s encounters are re-cast by an indefatigable Munchausenism as comic adventures that stoke whimsical trains of association leading to off-the-cuff portraits, decades-old, behind-the-scenes revelations, childhood memories… Like an evening at a comedy club, you are left with a feeling of life enhanced, the muscle ache of painful laughter, and the complete inability to recall any of the Groucho Marx-style barrage of quips to which you have just been subjected.
At times it is hard to know when they’re being serious, as when Marco says:
– My father bought me my first bike, a Luigi Ganna, when I was eight, and I was second in my first race. Or penultimate, it depends on how you look at it. There were only three of us.
At the Abu Dhabi Tour in October, the race organisation was spread out over two hotels. I didn’t see Molinari in mine, the St Regis, until about stage three.
– Are you staying here?
– No, we’re in the other hotel.
– Ah, you’re in the hotel with Mauro and Stefano?
– No, Mauro and Stefano are in the hotel with us.
If Vegni and Allocchio had been there at the time, I can imagine them, as they often do, running with the route inspectors’ little joke. The transcript would have been pages long. This is the joy of the Giro.
As ex-riders, Della Vedova and Molinari’s repartee is both a repository of memories of Italian cycling’s recent past, and a mine of humour that helps them and everyone else cope with the rigours and hours spent making sure some of the world’s biggest bike races run smoothly and safely, from the Dubai and Abu Dhabi Tours to Strade Bianche, Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan-Sanremo, the Giro d’Italia, and the one-day races Milan-Torino, Gran Piemonte and Il Lombardia.
The hours, and miles, can be astonishing: I recall Maurizio leaving a Tirreno-Adriatico somewhere in Le Marche to drive to the Prefecture in Sanremo 500 kilometres away for a meeting about a stage of the Giro d’Italia, before driving back again to rejoin the race the following day. Covering improbable distances at improbable times of day or night to liaise with local authorities the length of the Italian peninsula over race route access and safety is just part of the job.
There are other qualifications: an encyclopedic knowledge of the Italian road network, quick wits fed by bags of common sense, good communication, a sense of humour and nerves of steel. Della Vedova and Molinari have all this, plus, of course, the experience to see the road the way the speeding peloton sees it.
Vegni and Allocchio and their staff plan the routes, and the race cartographer, Stefano Di Santo, creates the detailed maps. Marco chips in: “In the first years, all the route planning and plans were done by hand, on paper. Now Di Santo does it all on a computer.”
Then the route inspectors go out and look at it, kilometre by kilometre. Maurizio explains what they are looking for: “Route changes to avoid level crossings, tunnels with no lights, bad road surfaces. Things you meet on the route, and you try to resolve with the appropriate authorities: roundabouts, bottlenecks, tricky descents, suitable spots for intermediate sprints and feed zones. What you find on the ground is never the same as the map. Things change, furniture appears. Things have changed in ten years. There are more crossings and pedestrianised areas. Italy is full of beautiful medieval towns and villages, but going through them is difficult.
“And then, there are earthquakes and floods that change everything. At times we don’t know what we’re going to find. Imagine the Apennines now. We compile our own book of hazards during the recon. It doesn’t mean the route is changed: you can’t always avoid a section of road with a poor surface, or a hazardous junction. So sometimes, the only answer is to find a compromise and issue a warning to the riders in advance.”
The Giro d’Italia is the only Grand Tour where the cartographer, Stefano Di Santo, is present on the race. It means that, in case of emergency, stages can be tweaked in real time, on site, and detailed maps and time schedules emailed out to teams on the morning of a stage, if necessary.
“At the Giro, Di Santo goes half an hour ahead of us, for greater security. We bring a rider’s eyes to the route,” Marco explains.
Still, when the racing starts, the two ex-pros have their own burden of responsibilities: “We set off ten or 15 minutes before the riders,” says Maurizio. “We make sure the road is clear of traffic, and last minute issues. Communication is the main thing. We talk a lot to the police. We make sure the route is right. We check the arrows. Sometimes they have been stolen or turned around, so we take a stock with us and put them up, if necessary. Then we warn the motos and the race directors, Mauro and Stefano, if there are hazards.”
Man-made hazards like road traffic accidents, and acts of God like extreme weather and landslides, can change the best-laid plans. On occasion, entire events hang on decisions taken by Marco and Maurizio in the car. The freezing 2013 Milano Sanremo had to be stopped at Ovada, at the entrance of the Stura valley leading to the Turchino pass.
“We took the motorway, under Mauro’s instructions, and created a sort of spontaneous, provisional race finish at the only place where there was room for 25 coaches to park,” Maurizio recalls.
At the 2013 Giro d’Italia, a sudden morning freeze made the descent from Sestriere too dangerous for racing. In order to reach Bardonecchia and the foot of the final climb, the Jafferau, the stage had to be routed along the Val di Susa around Sestriere. With no arrows along the new route, the entire Giro depended on the route inspectors.
“We were ahead of the race, everyone was following us,” Maurizio says. “We had to guarantee security along the route. If we’d taken a wrong turn, the stage would have ended in chaos.”
With no arrows to mark the route, they knew that any mistakes on their part would be very public ones. “I remember laughing about being in a car, where the cold can’t get to you. Just as well. In the old days, we were on bikes. You see things, and your mind goes back to your racing days. ‘I’d have braked too much on this’ – that sort of thing. And then we’re off…”
Their sporting lives followed the typical trajectory of all but the very greatest athletes: promising beginnings, glory approached but never quite achieved, careers easily dismissed as those of mere journeymen. The attitude to life that seems to go with them (‘I had class. I could have been a contender’) could be overwhelming. Not in the route inspectors’ car. Everything is tinged with a sense of fun and of the richness of experience, even if, unless you are Eddy Merckx, to have no regrets at all after a career in sport would scarcely be human. Accordingly, the wisecracks occasionally have the melancholy edge of youth receding.
If Marco was a climbing specialist, Maurizio describes himself with a smile as “a complete rider. Slow on every terrain!” Pressed, he says he was a passista veloce – a rouleur with a turn of speed: “In 1991, I was second in a stage of the Giro di Puglia. Fignon was first, Chiappucci third [it was stage five, Tricase Porto to Martina Franca, 206 kilometres: a long stage for a first-year pro]. If I’d taken the win, it would have changed my position in the team. It could all have been different.”
A contemporary in the peloton was Mario Chiesa, late of Katusha and now directeur sportif at Bahrain-Merida. “In the peloton they used to call Maurizio ‘Flash’, as in ‘Quicker coming back to the peloton than attacking out of it!’” Chiesa says. “But it was just cycling humour. He was a good rider: otherwise, Ferron [directeur sportif Giancarlo Ferretti] would never have taken him on at MG Maglificio-Technogym [in 1996]. That was on the back of results. Maurizio was fun to have around, always joking – the sort of rider who keeps the morale high. But he was also very intelligent.”
The highpoints of his career were a stage win in the 1994 Tour of Sweden, and third at Cava de’ Tirreni in a 1997 Giro d’Italia stage. He retired at the end of the 1998 season, aged thirty-three.
“I could have ridden one more year but in those days most riders stopped earlier. One year more or less didn’t make any difference. I opened a café. Cycling isn’t the only thing in life.” The family sport has been passed on to Maurizio’s son Kenny, a promising time triallist.
Meanwhile, fellow route planner Marco went through the age categories and, he says, “did okay”, meaning he was good enough to finish third in the mountainous Giro della Val d’Aosta and seventh in the Baby Giro in 1995, two of the hardest and most prestigious under-23 races in Italy. Those results won him a professional contract with Brescialat, starting in 1996. Between then and 2001, he rode five Giri, three Vueltas and the 1996 Tour de France.
“I have no regrets,” Marco say, reflecting on his career. “Or perhaps one, which was that I didn’t finish my only Tour, the year when it was always raining. I was ill on the rest day in the mountains, then on July 14, I abandoned. But I was someone in France! They invited me to appear on Velo Club, the post-race TV programme, and I called my mum live to say hello. The trouble was, the TV broadcast her telephone number and she started getting telephone calls from fans in French…”
He never won a race as a pro: the closest he came was fourth place in the Lausanne-Biella stage of the 1996 Giro (won by Nicolaj Bo Larsen). Injury deprived him of what could have been his finest moment: “In 2001, I was a support rider for Gilberto Simoni, but the week before the Giro, at the Tour de Romandie, I had leg pain, and I couldn’t start the Giro, which Simoni won.”
The pain turned out to be a blocked iliac vein. After three seasons with each of Brescialat and Lampre, Marco joined the final manifestation of Mercatone Uno for 2002.
“I met Marco Pantani at a dinner. He wanted to put a team together, and I said I’d be happy to ride with you, but the leg didn’t let me. So I retired, aged 30. I’d always enjoyed myself, although I never earned a great deal.”
He became a spinning instructor, led mountain bike expeditions, worked with schools and summer camps, and ran a junior team, discovering a real talent in bringing on young riders. The latest manifestation of Marco’s junior team is called Bustese Olonia Verbania; his most recent pupils include the brilliant World individual pursuit champion Filippo Ganna, Fabio Felline (the points winner at the 2016 Vuelta a España), and his Trek-Segafredo team-mate Eugenio Alafaci. Little wonder that, in his home village of Mergozzo, just east of Lake Maggiore, January 6 is “Della Vedova Day”, billed as “a day of races for everyone, on any type of bike”.
Experience is a valuable commodity in cycling. It was former Giro director Angelo Zomegnan who discovered Marco and Maurizio. “In 2006, RCS were organising a stage in my province, and I was talking to [then race director] Zomegnan. We decided to start the stage in my village, Mergozzo,” Marco explains. “He saw me work and asked me if I’d like to come and work for RCS.”
Maurizio, meanwhile, was contacted through Italian cycling’s old boy network.
“I lived in Milan, and I was always in touch with the ex-cyclists who worked with La Gazzetta dello Sport. I’ve always thought that a friend is worth more than money in the bank.”
For Mario Chiesa, Marco was similar to Maurizio, “always laughing, always with something to say, a funny comment, when you were near him.”
“Of course we are always laughing,” says Marco. “We are in the car together 12 or 13 hours a day, 60 days of the year.”
“One hundred days of the year!” Maurizio corrects his friend.
“I’ve always liked working hard, but you only live once. Why have a frown? I consider myself lucky to do what I do. I’ve a wonderful family, I live in a beautiful place, I have good health. The only way to live is to be happy and optimistic, with a laugh and a smile.”
The actual racing takes place somewhere just out of view of their rear-view mirror, although, says Maurizio, they aren’t entirely deprived of the action: “With the iPad, you can see some of it, but you’re busy so you don’t really take it in. We are looking, talking on the radio, taking notes, checking the milometer. But we reach the finish line ten minutes before the race, so we normally see the finish.”
There is lots of talk these days of cycling’s economic model, the ownership of the sport and the accompanying power struggles. To my mind, as long as cycling has its Della Vedovas and Molinaris, it is in safe hands. And if Hell can be other people, the opposite can also be the case.
To find yourself in such company, sharing stories, laughing a great deal, enjoying the probably frivolous, undoubtedly fun, and endlessly fascinating world of kids, big and small, trying to win bicycle races, life can be very good indeed.
Originally published in issue 17.3 of Rouleur magazine