"The Olympic season is always special. It's the most important race that we have in mountain biking. Not just because it's every four years, but because it's a chance to show our sport all over the world," said Fontana to Cyclingnews. "There are journalists from everywhere, and there is more space in magazines and on TV for us. I feel like an ambassador for my sport because I love it and I want to bring it to everyone."
Fontana kicked off his season strongly despite a crash in training that could have been much more serious. During a ride at a team camp in late February in Finale Ligure, Italy, Fontana crashed and dislocated his shoulder. However, he was back to racing just two weeks later at the opening UCI Mountain Bike World Cup in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, where he finished ninth. Then, he won the Marlene Südtirol Sunshine Race back home in Italy on April 1.
What comes next is an important part of the season: three World Cups on European soil, starting with Houffalize, Belgium this weekend. Then it's on to Nove Mesto, Czech Republic and La Bresse, France. Fontana would really like to take a step up in his career and claim a World Cup victory.
"My goal is to win a World Cup. Last year I got a third and a fifth and was eighth overall," he said. "So I've got podium spots, and I know how that feels. It feels good, but winning is everything, and it really matters."
"Last year was my best year so far, and I was close to a World Cup victory. You can say you're close, but to win you have to have a certain level." He pointed to Jaroslav Kulhavy, Julien Absalon and Nino Schurter as the men he expects to be the ones to beat, and in fact, Schurter was the man who won round one in Pietermaritzburg.
With his mountain bike goals firmly in mind, Fontana committed to improve his training generally and ended his cyclo-cross season a bit early. "I trained harder this winter and quit cyclo-cross after nationals. I went to Sicily, then to Tenerife at 2200m altitude. I spent 20 days there of hard training."
At the moment, Fontana's plan is to do the entire World Cup. If he snags that elusive World Cup win, then he might consider skipping one or both of the North American World Cups this summer to focus on the Olympic Games.
Training his weakness
One reason Fontana is still chasing his first World Cup win is that he has trouble keeping the cross country World Cup pace up until the end of each race.
"My weakness was my last lap - it happened a few times, but not every time last season," he said. "This winter, I spent more hours and kilometers on the bike to get a bigger base and with the goal of filling the gap I sometimes have on the last lap. I want to have a bigger engine. By training more, I can get more power and that will help me step up. Maybe it will be enough to go at the same pace the whole race or even have a faster pace on every lap."
"What I saw in the World Cup season is that if you have good lap times the whole race, you're there. If you have one fast lap, that's good, but you need the consistency."
It's not just about the physical part of training, though. Fontana is also tending to the lifestyle details that can give a top pro the extra something it takes to earn success.
"I'm also working on my mindset. I'm a nice guy, and I like to hang out with friends. I'm not a crazy guy, but I like to spend my life in a good way and go on my motorbikes and cars. I like toys, but I am working more on the pro mindset... training, eating, resting. I'm already a pro, but details everywhere can make a difference."
The road to London
While some riders are fully occupied this spring with chasing their spots on national teams head to the Olympic Games, Fontana's path to the Olympics seems more straightforward since he is pre-qualified.
"In Italy, the national coach chooses the riders for the Olympics. It's not like in Switzerland or other countries when you need some results. I'm the strongest guy in Italy for the last few years. We spoke with the coach and he trusts me. I got fifth at the last Olympics. The first four World Cups will be important for everyone. I think it will be me and Gerard Kerschbaumer."
"If I'm good, they will pick me - that's why I'm pre-qualified. We'll likely qualify two riders."
Now all Fontana has to do is stay healthy and work on ramping up his form.
Despite already raced the Olympic Games in Beijing, China, much earlier in his career, Fontana is expecting the London experience to be unlike his previous one.
"The last Olympics was slightly different because I was 24 years old and young," he said. "I felt that it was something special and new, but I had no pressure. I was racing for a small team. It was like a dream. Just showing up was good. I was strong and I got fifth that year in the Olympics and 10th in the World Cup."
"Now, it's different. There is more media and my Cannondale Factory Racing team. But now I'm a pro, and I have a professional team behind me. I also have the experience."
Fontana previewed the Hadleigh Olympic course last May. "It's more of a new school race - more built up with stones and rocks, but that's what we need. I like natural trails, too, but at the same time, it's kind of old school. I'm sure it's going to be such a good opportunity for our sport. They made a good track and we can show off our sport well."
Commenting on the evolution of cross country mountain bike racing over time from being run on single lap, longer natural trails to on multi-lap, shorter, more purpose-built tracks, Fontana said, "I use the example of Formula 1 and Moto GP. Years ago, they were on gravel roads. Now they race in Qatar. I know it's not the 'pure sport', but we're in 2012, and we need the show."
When asked about the increasing number of serious drops and jumps appearing on the World Cup and Worlds courses, he said, "I'm there for the race, but people that are there - they want to see the show. Little jumps are ok, we don't have to jump 20m like downhillers."
Another major change in the sport of mountain biking has been the addition of the eliminator format to the World Cup. It will be part of the three European World Cups, starting with Houffalize this weekend. Fontana and his team were among those advocating for the new sub-discipline.
"We pushed a lot for the eliminator. We took part last year, and we will again this year. We spoke with the UCI and gave them some ideas to get it to be more exciting and safer. If you have more than one race on a weekend, it's good for everyone - riders, sponsors and people walking around getting a coffee get to see this interesting event. You don't have to know much to figure out what's going on. Four riders. Two are out, two go on."
There's still some work to be done. "I don't think the start is right yet. We don't have a gate; it can't be right to start with one foot down. It also should be connected to the World Cup overall. It shouldn't be that some of us do it and that Schurter, Absalon and Kulhavy aren't doing it."
He also thinks a more thought-out schedule would help, noting that the times of the heats were not well specified in trial eliminators last year, and he often didn't know until the last minute that he was up again for his next round. "They have to make a schedule and write it down and stick to it - it's more professional. I can't spend the whole evening."
"It's not good when number 100 in world ranking is beating me... I don't like it, but at the same time it's an opportunity that some of these guys will have. It's also cool when you run it through a village. Dalby Forest [at last year's World Cup round - Ed.] was great. We had little climb, a few turns, some stairs."