Franco Pellizotti's 15-year racing career officially ended in the days after Il Lombardia, with the switch to the role of directeur sportif at Bahrain-Merida coming quickly as the team gathered to plan and prepare for 2019. Pellizotti still had the lean physique of a rider and was still competitive despite being 40, but he was ready to start a new chapter in his life and career.
"I realised everything had changed when I no longer sat at the riders' dinner table but with the other directeurs sportifs. I could eat anything and everything I wanted, but it felt strange because the riders' table is sacred in some ways, and I'd sat there for so many years," Pellizotti tells Cyclingnews, slightly emotional as he acknowledges the symbolism of the change in his life.
"Il Lombardia was my last real race, and then the Saitama Criterium was the last time I pinned on a number. I've chosen to retire now, and it feels right, even if it is emotional. But I'm happy with the decision. It'll be something new for me and very different, but I'm curious to see what it's like on 'the other side'."
A career of two parts
Pellizotti did not have a glittering career but was admired for his intelligence, his friendly nature and using his climbing and Grand Tour talents. His 15 years as a professional began with the Alessio team in 2002 and continued at Liquigas between 2005 and 2010, where he rode with and for Vincenzo Nibali, Ivan Basso, Danilo Di Luca and then neo-pro Peter Sagan.
At the time, the distinctive green Liquigas jerseys dominated the Italian peloton, matching the biggest WorldTour teams of the era. Pellizotti stood out due to his likeable character, his reams of curly hair and the nickname of 'Il Delfino di Bibione' – The Dolphin from Bibione.
Pellizotti finished fourth at the 2008 Giro d'Italia, winning the mountain time trial to Plan des Corones and then finished third at the 2009 Giro d'Italia, winning the polka-dot jersey at the Tour de France. He seemed at the peak of his career, but in 2010 he was snared by the UCI Biological Passport, with unusual blood values emerging during the peak of his success in 2009.
He denied doping and fought hard to try to clear his name, initially with legal and financial clout from the Liquigas team. He was cleared by the Italian Olympic Committee but the Court of Arbitration for Sport confirmed the validity of the Biological Passport and banned him for two years. He lost his 2009 results and was fined €115,000.
Pellizotti initially said he would quit the sport, but came back when his ban ended in the spring of 2012, riding for Androni Giocattoli. He immediately won the Italian national title to spend a year in the green, white and red 'tricolore' jersey.
He would never win another race, but he led Androni Giocattoli for five years, often racking up top 10 places in hilly races. He became Vincenzo Nibali's road captain and confidante in 2017 when Bahrain-Merida was created, making up for his time out of the sport by racing until a few months before his 41st birthday.
"I've got a lot of good memories from my racing career, from when I turned professional way back in 2001, to winning the Italian national title in 2012 after two difficult seasons," was his only mention of the Biological Passport case.
"I've been lucky to find teams that never pushed and squeezed me too hard, so I've managed to finish my career in good shape. I was thinking about retirement, but then extended my racing career when I joined Bahrain-Merida in 2017. I got to enjoy two great years alongside Vincenzo, often sharing a room with him and sharing in his and the team's success. Now I've got another chance to start a new chapter in the team as a directeur sportif."
Vincenzo Nibali (right) and Bahrain-Merida teammate Franco Pellizotti finish together.
'I've tried to learn as much as I can while in the saddle'
Pellizotti seems to have the personality and the racing curriculum vitae to be a modern directeur sportif. He does not have the dominating character to order his riders around, preferring a more sensitive and human approach.
"The role of the directeur sportif perhaps seems relatively easy from the outside, and some people think they just drive the team car and pass up bidons. The truth is, it's a lot more complex than that," he argues.
"I think a good directeur sportif has to be a good captain of the ship; they have to be good at resolving problems and at understanding and managing the riders. Grand Tours and Classics campaigns are full of difficulties because you're fighting to win. Things don't always go as you hope and you plan; riders get ill or crash, or simply struggle to perform. People can fall out and have personal problems. The directeur sportif has to be able to manage and resolve all those problems, while motivating and pushing the riders to do as well as they can.
"In the last few years I've looked at the team and the races differently. I wasn't expected to win, and I wasn't the leader, and so that allowed me to study things carefully. I was a road captain and so was somewhere in the middle between the captain, the directeur sportif, and the hopes and ambitions of the team. I've tried to learn as much as I can while in the saddle so that I can quickly get up to speed and be a good 'DS' myself."
Pellizotti will start at the bottom of Bahrain-Merida's team management ladder, learning the ropes from the likes of Gorazd Stangelj, Alberto Volpi and Tristan Hoffman. He will not immediately jump into the lead team car behind Nibali but will be expected to try to read and understand the Sicilian's mood and desires as he targets the Giro d'Italia or Tour de France in 2019.
"I've covered a lot of kilometres as a rider, but now I've got to cover a lot as a directeur sportif before I can call myself a real DS," Pellizotti suggests modestly.
"It's true that I know Vincenzo well, but that's as a rider. I hope that our relationship can help me in my new role as a directeur sportif. A team leader is like a pedigree racehorse and has to be treated that way. They're there to win and so can't be loaded with all the other problems and issues a team faces. That's where a good directeur sportif can really make a difference."
Franco Pellizotti documenting his first appearance at the Abu Dhabi Tour.