Opinion: Is Vini Fantini heading towards oblivion?

The Vini Fantini management has insisted the Italian Professional Continental team will continue despite Danilo Di Luca and Mauro Santambrogio testing positive for EPO. Daniel Friebe suggests that directeur sportif Luca Scinto and everyone at the team only have themselves to blame.

Luca Scinto is the kind of man who doesn’t need to tell jokes, because he knows that when he walks into a room, so does the punchline. Slightly dishevelled, unashamedly unsophisticated, invariably affable, “Pitone” or “Python” as he’s always been known, is the lovable clot of the Italian gruppo.

I happened to spend two days with Scinto at a course for aspiring directeurs sportifs years ago. He already had his own Under 23 team and a protégé in Giovanni Visconti – to whom he proudly introduced me that weekend – but still had to complete the formality of an Italian Cycling Federation diploma before taking up the same role in a professional outfit. For two days, Scinto sat in the front row of a classroom, dozing, wisecracking, flicking ink and pitching in with pearls of wisdom accumulated in all his years fetching bottles for Michele Bartoli and then coaching youngsters like Visconti.

Some of his methods and convictions were, to say the least, unorthodox: he told me, for instance, that one of his Under 23 riders was always on the phone to his dad, and that he had put a stop to it by yanking the mobile out of the kid’s hand and throwing it into a field. When the conversation turned to training plans, as it did frequently that weekend, Scinto rolled his eyes and announced that, when Aldo Sassi was his coach at Mapei, he would keep one of Sassi’s training plans permanently tucked beneath the telephone in his lounge, and simply recite it whenever Sassi called.

Scinto has evolved into a skilled and sensitive man-manager since then, but one whose Alma mater will always be the University of Life – a life lived in the dubious old school of Italian cycling. It is his strength and also his great weakness. His earthy, guileless approach can be effective – like it was when he sent Filippo Pozzato a text message every morning for months after he joined Farnese Vini, saying just, “Non mangiare!” or “Don’t eat!”, and Pozzato went on to enjoy his best spring for years. Or it can look and sound totally anachronistic and half-witted.

Over the last three weeks, ever since Danilo Di Luca’s positive test for EPO and ejection from the Giro, we regret to say that the latter description has seemed by far the more apt. “Massacre me, rip me apart – I was stupid to believe them,” Scinto pleaded on the announcement this week that a second Farnese Vini rider, Mauro Santambrogio, had been fingered for doping with EPO. The worst of it, perhaps, was that you could barely speak to Scinto during the Giro without the Vini Fantini manager himself referring to widespread suspicions about Santambrogio’s performances. Scinto had asked his mate, Santambrogio’s old BMC DS Max Sciandri, and got reassurances, but still felt the need to quiz the rider on two separate occasions. “Luca, you have to stop asking me these questions. You’re offending me,” Santambrogio told him.

Really, though, however Di Luca or Santambrogio were going to fob him off, it was already much too late. Scinto and his long-time associate Angelo Citracca had lost the moment they signed both men, in a sop to their sponsor in Di Luca’s case, and on a wing and a prayer in Santambrogio’s. The latter had already been dishonourably mentioned in the Mantova doping investigation – and will be again at the next hearings in June and July. As a result, he was extremely cheap, or as the Italian magazine Cyclingpro put it, “low-cost, high risk”. Ever since starting work as a directeur sportif, an attack-at-all-costs approach has been Scinto’s leitmotif - but he really ought to stop and think about how realistic that should logically be, in a race like the Giro, where his entire team budget equates roughly with the annual salary of one GC contender on a WorldTour team. By rights, on their wages, Scinto’s riders should be barely be getting round. Instead Santambrogio was winning on the Jafferau and finishing ninth overall, this after a litany of swashbuckling rides and podium places dating back to January.

Our other regrettable conclusion, at the end of this sorry saga, is that Scinto should perhaps no longer trust himself, let alone riders with skeletons rattling in closets. Lovable he may be, and funny with it, but the “Python’s” own judgement has let him down at least as much as his two EPO-injecting “cretini”, to use his words.

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