Gianni Savio's cycling dream team

Legendary Italiam team manager of Androni Giocattoli picks his dream team

Legendary Italian team manager Gianni Savio and his Androni Giocattoli team will not be at this year’s Giro d’Italia after they failed to secure a wild card invitation. However, to celebrate the history of the Corsa Rosa and Savio’s 30 years in the sport, he has drawn up his very personal Giro d’Italia dream team for Cyclingnews.

His nine riders have all ridden with Savio over the years and have won stages or fought for a place in the overall classification. Savio has named Michele Scarponi as his team leader and naturally included several South American climbers, who have often raced with Savio before going on to bigger teams.

Savio has often given riders caught in doping cases a second chance, and he explains in detail why he does it. He has been accused of signing riders cheaply because of their bans, but Savio defends his philosophy, using Lance Armstrong as an example.

The rules:

  • Dream teams must feature nine riders, one of which can be the rider selecting the team, in which case they pick eight riders to join them.
  • The riders picked must have all ridden with the person picking the team. That means you can’t just pick the eight or nine best riders of a generation.

I’ve been a team manager for something like 30 years. I’m from Turin and proud to be Italian, but I’m also proud to have a very cosmopolitan team. My riders represent my way of interpreting professional cycling. I don’t have a massive budget like some, but I like to think I run a good team that gives riders opportunities to show their talents, especially if they are climbers from South America. I’m known as a ‘Busca Talentos’, especially in Colombia.

I’ve been going to South America for a long time now and know lots of people who follow the local and national racing scene, and who scout the best talents for me. I then investigate things, study the riders and above all I test the riders in the lab and study their physiological profiles to try to confirm if they’re natural talents or if they are a fraud. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to be 100 percent sure about a rider, even with years of experience.

I’ve been criticised for giving riders contracts after doping bans, but I think it's only right that we give riders a second chance and I’m proud to have done it several times, including with our current leader Franco Pellizotti. I do it because cycling has gone through some terrible times and often justice in our sport has not been fair. The line between what was right and wrong was often moved depending on the case. Some riders were banned, often for a long time, while others did the same things but got away with it. Some were ‘lucky’ and others were ‘unlucky’.

I think Lance Armstrong is an example of this. He was rightly banned for doping but he has been presented as the person responsible for so many of the problems that occurred during his time. In truth, he wasn’t the only one. His teammates at the time were only given six-month bans because they confessed and helped the investigator. But they did the same doping as Armstrong. I know that’s how the American justice plea-bargaining system works, but I think that it’s unfair. They earned a lot of money thanks to Armstrong but then got off with just a six-month ban.

I say this as just an example and that’s why I believe riders who served doping bans in the last 20 years were ‘unlucky’. They paid the price for so many others who doped but were never caught.

For me there’s a huge difference between that period and the current period now that we have the Biological Passport. I no longer sign riders who have been suspended since the introduction of the Bio Passport because it helps us fight doping so much. If we see some suspicious blood values, we can suspend a rider, as we did with Francesco Reda back in 2013. He was leading the UCI Europe Tour rankings when I suspended him, but if I’d taken him to the Giro d’Italia, he’d have had a stratospheric race. I went against my own interests but did it based on the Biological Passport. I proved to be right because when Reda raced again with another team, only Vincenzo Nibali stopped him winning the Italian national title. Fortunately he was caught and suspended again.

 Image courtesy of Pro Cycling Trumps

Team leader: Michele Scarponi

Michele is my team captain, not just because he’s Italian or for the excellent results he obtained when with us, but also because of his charisma and the way he raced. Rujano arguably secured better results by finishing on the Giro d’Italia podium in 2005, but he was totally naïf. He was capable of doing lots of things but being a team captain was not one of them. Michele was an excellent team captain.

I signed him in 2008 after he’d served his doping ban for his involvement in Operacion Puerto. At the time nobody wanted to give him a second chance. Two years later, after he’d won Tirreno-Adriatico, two stages at the Giro d’Italia and finished fourth overall, everyone wanted him and I was unable to match the offers he had. It’s a pity for us but that’s how our crazy world works.

Sprinter: Roberto Ferrari

Every team, including mine, which is usually built around climbers and focuses on winning mountain stages, needs a sprinter in their line-up, and Roberto has a special place in my heart. He rode with us for two years and in 2012 he won a stage to Montecatini Terme.

Sadly, a lot of people remember Roberto’s spat with Mark Cavendish at the 2012 Giro d’Italia on stage 3 more than his victory. That’s a pity because he is a good sprinter and has become an important lead-out rider for Sacha Modolo at Lampre-Merida.

That day in Denmark Robert made a mistake but didn’t want to admit it. He moved across the road in the sprint and brought down Mark and lots of other riders, including Taylor Phinney who was in the pink jersey. There was a huge polemica afterwards and so I had to step in and convince Roberto to apologise to Cav. He didn’t want to do it and so I personally intervened and apologised to Cav and also apologised publicly on television. I eventually convinced Roberto to apologise, too, but Mark was still understandably pissed off with him because he knew he wasn’t sincere. However, Mark actually thanked me and we’ve had a good relationship ever since.

Climber: Leonardo Sierra

I obviously wanted several South American riders in my dream team and the first, in chronological order, is Venezuela’s Leonardo Sierra because he was the very first South American rider I discovered and helped to have a successful career in Europe.

He was a great climbing talent and won the stage to Aprica in the 1990 Giro d’Italia when riding for my Selle Italia Eurocar team. It was a thrilling finish because he actually crashed twice on the descent of the Mortirolo but got back up and won. He also went on to finish 10th in the overall classification.

Sadly, he didn’t do much after leaving my team and became infamous for his fight with another rider at the 1995 Vuelta. He was already with the Carrera team by then and became a boxeur instead of a climber.

He was a huge talent and could have had a much longer career; however, he simply wasn’t massively passionate about racing. I’m still in professional cycling after 30 years as a team manager because I love what I do. Leonardo came from a poor family in Colombia and so cycling was his way of lifting himself and his family out of poverty. During his career he earned some money and so soon quit the sport. He returned to Venezuela and built a hotel, which I think he still runs successfully.

Image courtesy of Pro Cycling Trumps

Rouleur: Massimo Ghirotto

I’ve also had lots of Italians in my team, and Massimo Ghirotto is a perfect example of a hard-working Italian who had a successful career in my team colours and then went on to do good things with other teams, too. He now works for Italian radio at the Giro d’Italia.

Massimo rode with my Zeta G Mobili-Selle Italia team in 1993 and 1994. He won a stage to Oropa in 1993, going clear alone after being in the break of the day. For me, that’s the best way to win a stage at the Giro d’Italia. He also won in Bra and so both stages were in my Piedmont region and so they meant a lot to me and our sponsors. Ghirotto always work hard and raced hard and deserved to have more success than he did. Most people have forgotten that he finished fourth in the 1993 world road race championships in Agrigento in Sicily. He could have won but was beaten by Frenchman Luc Leblanc.

Climber: Freddy Gonzalez

Freddy is perhaps one of the lesser-known Colombian riders of my teams, but he was arguably one of the most successful. He won the then green climber's jersey at the Giro d’Italia in 2001 and 2003. He was very talented and very consistent but very quiet and reserved.

Climber: Nelson 'Cacaito' Rodriguez

Nelson never won a stage at the Giro d’Italia, but he deserves a place in my dream team because he was always one of the stars of the Giro d’Italia; the tifosi loved him. He was the exact opposite of Freddy Gonzalez.

He’ll always be a special rider for me because he finished sixth in the 1994 Giro d’Italia and then won the queen stage of the Tour de France to Val Thorens. He beat Ugrumov and Marco Pantani. 

Image courtesy of Pro Cycling Trumps

Climber: Jose Rujano

Rujano was also in my team that year, and Jose also made history; 2005 was the first time that a South American rider finished on the final podium. He finished third behind Paolo Savoldelli and Gilberto Simoni that year after winning the legendary stage to Sestriere that climbed the dirt road Col delle Finestre.

I remember shouting at him during the stage from the team car: ‘Tranquilo, tranquilo, stay on the wheel.’ I got a lot of flack but it proved to be the right strategy because near the finish Simoni was dropped after desperately trying to gain time on Savoldelli, while we won the stage and finished third overall. He also won the climber’s jersey, making it a historic year for us.

Unfortunately, Rujano was, to be diplomatic and use a euphemism, a very ‘unique’ character. His time with our team ended badly in 2006, when he climbed off three kilometres from the finish of a stage, when the finish was all downhill!

He was badly advised at the time and opted to go to Patrick Lefevere’s Quickstep team. But he only lasted a few months and then they rescinded his contract. A friend convinced me to take him back in 2011, and he won the stage to Grossglockner in Austria and was sixth overall at the Giro d’Italia, but he lost the plot again and never won another race in Europe.

I’m convinced that if he’d followed my advice, he could have finished on the podium in other Grand Tours because he was very talented. Sadly, he didn’t have the professional mentality to go with it and he's now racing national-level races in Venezuela and Colombia.

Rouleur: Alessandro Bertolini

Alessandro was a talented rider but struggled to find a contract after being caught up in a police investigation into doping. I signed him to give him a second chance and he paid me back by twice winning the Coppa Agostoni and the Giro dell’Appennino. In the 2008 Giro d’Italia he also won a stage to Cesena. He was my kind of Italian rider, and, sadly, there are fewer and fewer of them around.

Climber: Miguel Angel Rubiano Chavez

I’ve listed my riders in a chronological order, and Miguel Angel Rubiano Chavez is the last for my dream team but hopefully not the last really successful rider of my career. I’ve got big hopes for 19-year-old Egan Bernal, who I discovered thanks to his success in mountain biking – he was on the podium on back-to-back junior cross country titles and is under contract with us for three years. He was the best young rider at the Giro del Trentino and hopefully he will get to show his talent in the 2017 Giro d’Italia.

Miguel Angel Rubiano Chavez is in my dream team because he went close to pulling on the pink jersey. He won a splendid stage in Porto san Elpidio and won alone after a long break that went away at the start of the stage. The incredible thing is just how close he came to pulling on the pink jersey. He was virtual race leader at one point, but Adriano Malori managed to pull back time and kept it by just 30 seconds. That was an emotional stage for me to watch, and one I’ll never forget.

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