Stefano Zanini – Still on the market

Born: January 23, 1969 Professional since: 1991 Teams: 1991-92 Italbonifica-Navigare 1993-94...

An interview with Stefano Zanini, November 25, 2007

Despite news reports to the contrary, 17-year veteran Stefano Zanini has announced that after a recurring injury and no contract renewal from his 2007 team, Predictor-Lotto, that he is still motivated to return to the peloton for an eighteenth season in the 2008. Zanini spoke with Cyclingnews' Kirsten Robbins about his uncertain future while looking back on the supportive cycling community that lead to the most successful moments in his career.

Stefano 'Zazà' Zanini turned professional in 1991, and since then, the rider from Varese, Italy has become recognized as one of the most successful cyclists on the European circuit. Having been on the most renowned teams of the past two decades, including a six-year term with the former Mapei squad, the 38 year-old has taken home nearly thirty victories including one World Cup and stages in both the Tour de France and Giro d' Italia.

After his current team, Predictor-Lotto, did not renew his contract and some nagging injuries resurfaced, the likeable Italian had thoughts of retirement. But Zanini confirmed that his manager is in negotiations with several teams for 2008 and that he is capable of offering matchless experience and strength to whatever team he should sign a contract. (Read Zanini wants to continue for more information.)

Zanini's palmarès have been running a bit dry as of late – his last victory was a stage in the 2004 Tour of Britain, but this skilled Italian assures us that he has a clear idea of when he wants to retire, and it is not now. "I always wanted to finish my career when I no longer reach the good level that I used to be and even though I had no victories in the last two years, I am highly motivated and competitive and I'm able to do the work that the team asked me to do," Zanini said.

"If I had the opportunity, I would like to be a director sportif because cycling is a sport of sacrifice and teamwork where you reach the maximum results by being a group, a union." -Stefano Zanini on his ideal future

Should he decide not to compete in 2008 it will be because a suitable contract did not present itself. In that case, he may be loaded down with the same annual race schedule but under a new position, if granted his post race career dream. "If I had the opportunity to be the director of a team next year, I would accept that," said Zanini. "I have spoken with Predictor-Lotto about becoming apart of the staff but nothing has been decided yet because the team's administration needs to figure out if there is a spot available with in the team budget."

"I'd really like to see my long term future involved in directing a cycling team," Zanini added. "With all the experience that I've gained as a professional cyclist, if I had the opportunity, I would like to be a director sportif because cycling is a sport of sacrifice and teamwork where you reach the maximum results by being a group, a union."

It's the sense of spirit of sacrifice Zanini loves about cycling and some day take with him into the next chapter of his life. "The honesty between team-mates is something useful in real life, life outside of sport," said Zanini before commenting on the aspects of cycling that need improvements. "I would leave behind the envy and the definitely the hypocrisies that are a major part of the sport right now."

The Hercules of Varese

Zanini earned the nickname 'Maciste' (the Hercules of Varese) growing up in the small community of Lozza, just outside Italy's cycling Mecca. Like most Italian youngsters, he started cycling when he was seven with a local Varese team, BiancoRossi-Vibi. "The first race I did when I was seven was right outside my house and I won," laughed Zanini, thinking back on how instrumental his childhood playtime with his bike was. "It was three laps for a total of three kilometres and look, I went on to compete in races like the Milano-Sanremo, which are three hundred kilometers."

Zanini previously rode for Gewiss-Bianchi, Mapei, Quick.Step, Saeco and Liquigas accumulating thirty victories in seventeen years as a professional. With wins the 1995 Milano-Torino, 1998 in Paris-Brussels, 2001 Tour de Swiss, 2003 US Pro Championships and multiple stage wins in the Giro d'Italia. According to the decorated Italian, his most precious moments involve the family kind. "The most beautiful success of my life, with my wife Rossana 'La Rossa', are the ones that come from our family – my two desperados Marco and Luca," said the father of two aspiring young cyclists.

"In terms of the most important cycling wins I would say the 1996 Amstel Gold Race World Cup, but the most influential was on the Champs-Élysées in the 2000 Tour de France because it made me popular and it was after that when the public and the cycling world began to recognize me."

Even the strongest riders in the professional peloton remember the mentors they had while developing into the riders that they became. Zanini attributes much of his career to the coaches at the Mapei training centre, supporters of his cycling endeavours from start to finish. But he grew up idolizing the Italian sprinter Guido Bontempi and legendary riders like former world champions Gianni Bugno and Johan Museeuw. "As I continued to grow into a professional rider, I became team-mates with two of my all time favourite riders," Zanini described the rare opportunity he had as a rider to compete under the same banner with his mentors Bugno and Museeuw.

Occasionally star struck by his team-mates in a challenging new environment, Zanini told stories of his first Milan-Sanremo, nervous and riding alongside Bugno and other more experienced riders. Even after six years as a professional, Zanini found himself overwhelmed with his colleagues. "In 1997 I was team-mates with Museeuw on Mapei, and I arrived to the Paris-Roubaix's race hotel a day before everyone else," said Zanini.

"The riders had to share a room but there was only one big bed and one small foldout cot, so when I got there I took the big bed. It turned out that Museeuw was my roommate – the world champion, my mentor – and I was so embarrassed. I wanted to change the sheets on the big bed and move to sleep on the cot but Museeuw said that he had no problem that I could stay where I was. He impressed me many times. He was a great man; a champion and he never had a problem with the simple things. So, I ended up staying in the big bed."

The spirit of cycling

When asked about the most significant changes that have taken place in his lengthy career, Zanini highlighted that the cycling world has become too tied up with the business world. "It gets worse because of the fighting between the UCI and all the federations, which is not good for the sport of cycling," said Zanini. "There is a lot of chaos because of the inconsistency in rules amongst the federations which ends up causing confusion."

An advocate of the world anti-doping movements, Zanini grew as an athlete alongside the continual changes being implemented. But he illustrated times of frustration by giving examples of the extensive and at times intrusive medical exams that professional riders undergo every season. "In 1997 we had to be available for all the medical exams," said Zanini. "Every year since then, they add something new and we've gotten to the point where we feel like we're under house arrest all the time. It doesn't seem right that I have to give my whereabouts every time I make a move, even when I'm on vacation with my family. Also, all sports should be under the same rules but it seems like cycling has a hundred rules that others sports don't have at all. Cycling always gets hit the worst."

Having two children, Marco (8) and Luca (13), actively racing with dreams of becoming professionals like their father, is an underlying reason why Zanini takes an active role in Varese's cycling's support network. This group is taking steps to improve the state of cycling in a country that's had an abundance of recent dishonour which has tainted their historical success. Zanini hopes that the supporters of the sport choose to remember Italian cycling for it's greatest moments, especially in a year where his country-men and women have brought home great victories such as Alessandro Ballan's Tour of Flanders win, Danilo Di Luca's win in the Giro d'Italia and Paolo Bettini's and Marta Bastianelli's World Championships.

"Yes we have negative and great moments," said Zanini. "I don't really want to talk about the negative moments because the public probably knows more about the sport's problems than about cycling itself. On the other hand we have many victorious moments from the World Championships, the Giro d' Italia and the Tour of Flanders."

"It was especially is nice to see, from my cyclist's point of view, that the fan's passion for cycling has never died," Zanini continued. "It was a great emotion for me to see so many people on the climbs in the Zoncolan and Tre Cime di Lavaredo mountain stages in the Giro this year and the festivities along the entire route was very emotionally stimulating. This is a part of the spirit of cycling: the fun, the simplicity, the honesty with out the envy and the hypocrisy. The kind of cycling I grew up in and the kind that I want my kids to grow up in."

Pedalata con i Campioni

According to Zanini, Varese is a city that supports their developmental riders all the way up to cycling's big names like the double world champion, Gianni Bugno and former riders Claudio Chiappucci, Oscar Mason, Francesco Frattini, Cristiano Frattini, Andrea Peron and Simoni Zuchi.

The current heavy hitting cyclists living in Varese include Michael Rogers (T-Mobile), Stefano Garzelli (Acqua & Sapone), Charlie Wegelius (Liquigas), Danielle Nardello (LPR), Gabriele Colombo (Aurum Hotels), Ivan Basso and Oscar Freire (Rabobank). The large group of old and new professionals encourage and maintain a hometown camaraderie during the off season by organizing soccer games between the current pro's versus the ex-pro's and even cyclists versus other professional Varese athletes from different sports.

The more renowned event that the riders organize is called the Pedalata con i Campioni – a ride with the champions. Annually on December 8, the public is invited on a charity group ride with the professional cyclists including the world champion Paolo Bettini. The course is a forty-five-kilometer circuit that starts and finishes in small town of Brinzio, located on the outskirts of Varese, which was chosen because of its historical ties to cycling. Bettini is one of numerous professional cyclists who donate a signed jersey to raffle off to the people who participate in the event.

Twelve of Varese's professional riders started the group ride eight years ago to inaugurate a monument they restored, built into the mountainside on the road up to Brinzio. The monument is of a brick wall with a shiny crank arm bolted to it with a pedal attached. Every deceased cyclist has his or her name engraved onto a small plaque which is hung on the monument.

The founders of the charity ride include Nardello, Davide Frattini, Simone Zucchi, Gabriele Colombo, Ivan Basso, Dario Andriotto, Garzelli, Tupak Casnedi, Andrea Peron and Oscar Mason. But according to Zanini the most important person involved in organizing the festivities is Sergio Gianoli, a local journalist, who organizes the event's annual logistics and publicity at www.pedalaconicampioni.com

The ride grew from it's twelve founders to more than one thousand riders in eight years. The funds collected from the entrance fee cover the insurance costs for holding the ride and the rest is donated to local charities. "The principal objective of the 'Pedalata con i Campioni' is to raise funds for charity," said Zanini. "We started it as a ride to celebrate our effort in restoring our monument. Every year we take photos of our charity of choice and publicize where the funds went so that the public trust what we have been creating every year."

Along with the current world champion, the public will converse while riding alongside Luca Paolini, Filippo Pozzato and Naomi Cantele. But the ride involves additional sport champions like NASCAR driver Max Papis, motorcycle driver Roberto Locatelli, Para-Olympic medallist Fabrizio Macchi, Olympic medallist in rowing Andrea Luini and ex-soccer star Claudio Gentile.

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