February 2014. Dario Cataldo sits by the balcony on his hotel room with feet up, the Gulf of Oman peeking into view round the corner. His room-mate, Mikel Nieve, is doing some stretching exercises in the bedroom behind.
The Italian has a less conventional way of unwinding. He takes out his pencil set and plastic folder, layered with complete sketches and unfinished works.
Taking one of the mechanical colouring pencils, he starts to draw; after a minute, he moves away from the page to reveal the face of his girlfriend on a near-completed self-portrait.
The burning lungs, swear words and horn blasts of the race are far behind him now. This is his escape; tranquility.
He is a gregario; he suffers for his work, not his art. Cataldo protects captains through stage races. On the flat stages, he keeps them in the sweet spot – by the sprinters’ teams without being a nuisance, in front of everyone fighting for position. In the mountains, where he excels, he often leads the bunch in pursuit of a breakaway, then watches them disappear into the horizon when the crunch approaches. No wonder that takes a bit of explaining occasionally.
“It’s a bit like saying to someone: why are you a defender in a football team? Why don’t you go looking for goals? Because it’s my role, simple as that,” Cataldo says. “Not everyone can be strikers.”
Has a bad day on the bike ever influenced what he draws afterwards? “No, whether it all goes well or badly, it’s just a period,” he says. “The season is long and who better than us [pro cyclists] can teach that when you crash, you need to get up and try, try, try again…Maybe there are times when it keeps going wrong and it’s not easy.” As you’ll see, Cataldo knows about circumstances conspiring against him more than most. “These distractions then become even more important, you need to not always be thinking about cycling.”
“It’s difficult to do something that really takes you completely outside [of the cycling world]; perhaps on the internet, you’re reading articles that keep you involved or if you do another sport, it means getting tired, and tiredness really disconnects you. Drawing is the only thing that takes me away,” he says.
Cataldo’s former directeur sportif Davide Bramati gave him the nickname “Picasso.” He is the artist of the bunch, but while it’s romantic to think of every race as a fresh canvas ready for a different painting – the domestiques as the ones mixing the paints and doing the initial sketches before the master artist to deliver the decisive brushstrokes – it’s probably an exaggerated analogy.
Science is more abundant than ever in the modern sport: riders seem increasingly like SRM-fixated, race radio-controlled, élan-eviscerating robots. Is there still room for art?
“Power meters, aerodynamics, tactics; they are just instruments for using your creativity. Like a pencil, it’s a tool to use, but it depends how you use it. That’s the key. It’s all relative,” he says.
The mod-cons are a world away from Cataldo’s humble beginnings in the sport. On summer school holidays, he and his brother Marco would cycle all day around the Abruzzo countryside with their fishing rods to explore new lakes or fishing spots.
One day, his father, an amateur cyclist, took him on a 60-kilometre ride. Cataldo, who is allergic to dust, was encouraged to do an aeroic sport and he duly discovered a gift for racing.
At a similar time, the 14-year-old Cataldo found a way of expressing his artistic side: graffiti. It was hardly a case of teenage rebellion and scarpering with spray cans at the sound of approaching police sirens, mind; his hometown of Lanciano had a specific wall designated for daubing where he could try out designs.
Cataldo is the kind of man likely to get more excited about a new Banksy book than a Tour de France tome. “I like cycling to race, but I don’t follow the sport so much. I never buy a newspaper to see who won what race… even when I’m racing maybe I don’t know what that jersey is or who the rider attacking is.”
In his art, he focuses chiefly on figures encountered in his life, be it friends or team-mates (he gets the odd request for portraits of people from peers aware of his ability). A drawing of late cycling stars Franco Ballerini and Marco Pantani profoundly stands out. The former was his much-respected national team manager; the latter Cataldo’s childhood hero.
“I drew it on the first anniversary of Ballerini’s death. When I arrived in Majorca for a training camp, I recalled the moment twelve months earlier when the news came through that he had been involved in an accident.”
Every now and then, there is something of the philosopher about Cataldo. Several times during our interview, he refers to life’s percorso, its route. Throughout he seems to select his words as carefully as his pencil strokes, gentle but precise.
He is a quiet man, at ease with himself and modest. One day, his former Quick Step team-mate Addy Engels turned to him and said “you are not a typical Italian.”
Indeed, Cataldo has spent the majority of his career on non-Italian teams, preferring the independence available. “I don’t like any sports director who tells you how to train, what to do, how to eat… they trust the riders more [on foreign teams]. That’s how it must be. I don’t need control. Training, diet, bedtime; I’m a professional rider, I can do it: if I don’t, I’ll go home, no problem.”
The man from Abruzzo is strong enough against the clock to win an Italian national title, but not quite of the calibre to challenge Tony Martin and company. Similarly, he is adept in the mountains, taking a grueling Vuelta stage on the brutal Asturian gradients of Cuitu Negru in 2012, but has generally given the best of himself to leaders in recent years.
“Unfortunately, riders like me are not super champions like Sagan or Kittel, those who are still able to win easily at 70 per-cent. The difference is that someone like me has to be at 100 per-cent, to have the grinta, the head, the tactics, everything – and the luck.”
“Even if I’m a gregario, doing it for a big champion is still a great honour. And this can’t take away from satisfaction for myself,” he says.
Despite the necessity of domestiques in cycling, Cataldo feels that his role is regularly misunderstood. “Perhaps from the outside, the gregario has become a bit undervalued; outwardly, when you work for someone else, it seems almost like you have done nothing. But you see the difference in a strong worker: he helps the environment in the team, he understands cycling. Not everyone can be a fuoriclasse.”
This is Cataldo’s great strength: complete self-awareness of himself and his own abilities, coupled with an ego well in check. He knows that being a worker does not mean a total abnegation of his own ambitions. There’s a real art to his role.
“I like doing my job and when there is the opportunity, it makes sense that I like going all out to seek out victory. But it is not a victory to move up my own position in the hierarchy because I already know my level. You see the true value of a rider in the work that he does.”
This is an edited extract of an article that was originally published in Rouleur 58