I still really miss Gino, by Pello Bilbao

Almost a year on since Gino Mäder died at the Tour de Suisse, his Bahrain-Victorious teammate Pello Bilbao opens up about the effect Mäder’s death had on him, and explains why the much-loved Swiss was a unique figure within the sport.

You’ve probably heard the story about Gino finding a stray dog in Bilbao and naming it after me. Well, one of the very first times I spoke with him was when he told me about this story. Honestly, I was convinced it was meant to be a joke. It was so funny because I had only chatted with him a few times before, but there he was explaining that he had named his dog after me! I found it a little curious, but I knew then that this was a guy with a special sense of humour.

We’re coming up to the one-year anniversary of his death, and I still think about him a lot. Anyone who ever met him would agree that he was really special. His type is not that common to find in the cycling world: he was something more than a cyclist, not just worried about performance, a complete person who thought about many different topics, and you could see he was worried about more important things. When you were with him, he put things into perspective.

It wasn’t like we were speaking about philosophy all of the time, but we’d talk about different countries, cultures, ways of living and compared our different lifestyles. I didn't race with him too much – we started the 2021 Giro d’Italia together, the year he won a stage – but whenever we did I noticed he had a way of communicating. He would explain his thoughts in a clear and calm manner rather than forcing you to agree, and he taught me that you can influence through your personality, and not by insisting or trying to convince someone. He cared a lot about the environment, and alongside his reforestation project, he would speak about glaciers and the reasons as to why he was a vegetarian. He was never trying to have everyone’s attention or be the leader in the centre, but he was always speaking in small groups and one-on-one. That’s how he felt he could best contribute, and when he spoke, you listened.

Gino Mader

(Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)

The day he died at the Tour de Suisse was very obviously the worst moment of my cycling career; it was very, very hard. We decided not to race the stage, but we went to the finish line to meet his mum and dad, and that was a really difficult moment. After dinner, we had a team meeting with all riders and staff members. In cycling it’s not typical to speak about your feelings, but that night we all did, and it was helpful to hear what people were thinking and feeling. 

I then went back home to Spain to try to find some normality again with my wife and one-year-old daughter but it wasn’t easy. I was constantly thinking of Gino’s family and his girlfriend and asking, ‘what would happen to my wife and daughter if something like this happens to me?’. It was a chaotic moment in my life. The first few days I had little motivation to ride my bike, but with the Tour de France starting in the Basque Country, already a special event, I started to think that I wanted to do something big at the Tour in memory of Gino to show how special he was.

To pull off a win on stage 10 from the breakaway was a big relief – I was at peace. I felt it was something I needed to do because we were not present at Gino’s funeral. The team wanted us to isolate at home and prepare for the Tour, and that decision was hard for me. I’m not a religious guy, I don’t think about God, but I wanted to be there to show respect for him and his family. But actually, the team’s reasons were justified: it was better for us to train at home to give ourselves the best chance of honouring Gino in the race. When I won, I dedicated it to him, and it meant so much for everyone on the team. It really helped us all, and Wout Poets and Matej Mohorič subsequently won stages too. We were all racing for Gino, like our jerseys said. 

Pello Bilbao, Tour de France 2023

(Photo by Zac Williams/SWPix)

I was initially targeting stage two of last year’s Tour in San Sebastián, but after his death I started to question if I wanted to risk it all on the fast, dangerous descent down from Jaizkibel. For a moment I was asking myself if I was going to be able to race like that ever again. Before, I was more aggressive, took risks more often and enjoyed pure adrenaline situations. But after what happened with Gino, and the birth of my daughter, I now need to be really prepared and really sure when I take risks. I try to avoid risky situations a lot more now, and only go full gas when I am really convinced and feel like it’s necessary to have a good result. The good thing is, I know that I can control every situation and with analysis and race recces, I can minimise the risks. But I have to be honest: Gino’s death has changed how I race.

However, I still feel confident and comfortable racing, and I’ve had a good start to the season: third at the UAE Tour, sixth in the Basque Country and ninth at Amstel Gold and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. I’m excited to go back to the Tour and try to win another stage.

At some point, I would like to visit the cemetery in Switzerland where Gino is buried. It will be a difficult moment but I want to do it because he was a really special person and I – all of us, in fact – still really miss him.

- Pello


*Cover image by Charly Lopez/Bahrain Victorious 

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