Enrico Gasparotto proved this spring that he's still capable of landing big results, winning the Amstel Gold Race for the second time, and his move to the Bahrain-Merida team sees him back at WorldTour level with a leadership role in the Ardennes Classics.
Cyclingnews caught up with the 34-year-old Italian in Croatia last week as the new team congregated for the first time to get to know one another and start planning their goals for the 2017 season.
It's not yet clear whether Vincenzo Nibali will ride the Ardennes - with the Tour of Croatia another possibility ahead of the Giro d'Italia - but Gasparotto, speaks about linking up with his compatriot and former Liquigas and Astana teammate, and the possibility of a two-man assault on Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Gasparotto also opens up about his move from Wanty-Groupe Gobert to Bahrain, complaining that the Belgian team only offered him a new deal in August – and not a very attractive one at that. He recognises that his new team will have to be patient as everyone finds their feet, but feels that if all goes well, he can see himself carrying on riding all the way until the age of 38 and, hopefully, the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020.
Cyclingnews: How are things going in the new team?
Enrico Gasparotto: It's perfect for me. It's a completely new project but most of the people involved I've known for a long time. For example, I was teammate of Vladimir Miholjevic (sport director) in Liquigas, I was teammate with Nibali and [Valerio] Agnoli,at Astana, Paolo Slongo I worked with him in Liquigas and Astana, and also Brent Copeland I worked with in Lampre in 2009. Also a lot of staff and soigneurs are coming from Liquigas, so yes, it's a new project but it also feels very familiar.
CN: How did the move come about?
EG: To be honest, I wanted to wait for Wanty, to see what ideas they had about me and the future, and then I decided to come here. At the end Wanty was happy with me, obviously, but they don't have the budget to pay me well. Also, I don't know why, but they bought me two years ago, they put me again in a good level and were happy with that. They don't care about…they care more about the young guys and developing them.
CN: So the money was a big factor?
EG: The money but also they waited too long. I don't understand how they offered me a contract so late, and not earlier in the season. It was the end of August. That's quite late for a guy that won Amstel.
CN: Your role here, presumably, is the number one leader for the Ardennes?
EG: They've told me I'm quite free, yes. I don't know if Nibali will come to the Ardennes yet. If not, I'll have more freedom.
CN: But you'd look forward to working with Nibali?
EG: Definitely. I've worked with him in the past, and we've worked really well together. I did sixth in Liege with his help. For me, it's not a problem to work with someone like him. We are good friends, we live in Lugano, we train together. We are two riders who respect each other very much.
CN: Is it an advantage for you guys to have two cards to play?
EG: In races like Liège, the more you have in the final the better. It's like a poker match, you know; the more cards you have the more possibilities you have. The year [Maxim] Iglinsky won, in 2012, he wasn't the strongest rider on the day, it's just that it was me, Iglinsky and [Robert] Kiserlovski at the top of the Roche-aux-Faucons. Three of us, and we fought Katusha who had Purito (Joaquim Rodríguez), [Dani] Moreno and [Giampaolo] Caruso. Three on three. It's important.
Also it helps that we are really different kind of riders. Nibali to win in Liège has to arrive alone, me I have to wait for the sprint, maybe.
CN: Are you confident about stepping back up to WorldTour level?
EG: It's a big step up. I know already what it means being in a WorldTour team. I know what the difficulties are compared to Pro Conti. I'm happy to be back because I prefer the way of racing. As I showed last year, my results arrived in the WorldTour races. I'm ready to stay in the WorldTour at a good level. In the last two years I missed the races like Montreal and Quebec which I really like.
The last two years really opened my eyes. I realised that when you are at the top you don't see the problems or anything, but when you suffer a bit you can see everything in a different way and you are more realistic.
CN: You suffered at Wanty?
EG: In 2015, yes. Wanty knows that. I came from 10 years in the WorldTour and needed one year to switch my head. This year I enjoyed the whole year from the beginning to the end. Sometimes in a smaller group of riders, smaller team, it's really like a family, and less like a company. It's more familiar, the atmosphere.
CN: How's the atmosphere here in the new team?
EG: We are really relaxed now, there's no kind of stress. The best thing I have seen is that really there's no big clique here, we're more together – that's a good thing.
Like any new project the first year will be not so easy. The results, to be a real family, a group, it's not easy for everything to go well all year. I'm sure of that. We'll have some difficult moments, but if we stay relaxed and go step by step, I think it can go well.
CN: You're 34 now – how long do you see yourself going?
EG: In 2014, I always thought I could ride until 38, easily. In my head I still think I can be competitive until I'm 38 years old. The dream is to stop with the Olympic games in Tokyo, because I've never been to the Olympics and for a sportsman it's the highest point of a career. That can be a real objective, but I'm also realistic, in the next two years after this contract, I can decide to stop at 36.