Androni Giocattoli team manager Gianni Savio was smiling more than usual after the finish of stage 3 at the Tour of the Alps on Wednesday, happy in the role of giant killer after Fausto Masnada broke free of Team Sky's control with a late attack to win alone in Baselga di Pine.
Savio has spent most of his 20-plus years as a team manager in the lower ranks of the sport, driven by his love for the cycling, surviving on a small budget and paying his riders not much more than a living wage. He has carved out a niche thanks to his astute ability to unearth talented young riders from Italy and South America and help them develop and go on to bigger and better things at WorldTour level. Not everyone likes his style, but he is successful at what he does.
He helped Egan Bernal - now one of the biggest stage race talents in the sport - turn professional and race in Europe and then let him move to Team Sky in exchange for what he describes as a 'development bonus.' Savio reportedly obtaining €350,000 from Team Sky when he let Bernal move to the British squad and around €150,000 for Ivan Sosa's move for 2019.
Savio has never been able to find a major title sponsor for his own team and so loves it when one of his riders beats the far richer WorldTour teams.
"It's an extra special sensation when you win and do so beating some of the biggest WorldTour teams," Savio purred when speaking to Cyclingnews.
"They've got stratospheric budgets compared to ours. But I love being the underdog in the peloton. I compare us to the Italian soccer team Atalanta. Every season they discover good young talent and fight for a place in the Champion's League, but then have to sell their best players to their bigger rivals to balance their books and survive.
"If I'd been able to keep all the young talents I've helped develop, I'd be able to fight for overall victory at the Giro d'Italia. Two years ago I had Egan Bernal, Ivan Sosa, Davide Ballerini, Tro Bro Leon winner Andrea Vendrame and Fausto Masnada as the core of my team. No WorldTour teams wanted them two years ago, but look at them now, they win races and all deserves places in the WorldTour.
"Their success has confirmed how we help them develop and how we're able to find raw talent. We've also got the passion to keep fighting against the odds. People talk of a closed system of the best WorldTour teams, but cycling needs teams like ours."
Like other Italian team managers, Savio is concerned about how the latest UCI reforms to men's cycling for 2020 will impact the Professional Continental teams and reduce their opportunities to secure wildcard invitations to the Giro d’Italia and other major races.
Androni Giocattoli won the season-long Ciclismo Cup ranking in 2018 to secure a wildcard place at the 2019 Giro d'Italia, but that prize has been scrapped for 2020, and the possibility of up to 20 teams at WorldTour level in 2020 and fewer wildcard spots for Italian teams could lead to the disappearance of several teams. Savio has proposed that one of the two remaining wildcard invitations to the Giro d'Italia should be given to an Italian team.
"We'd manage to somehow survive, but it could be a major blow to cycling in Italy and Spain, two of the traditional cycling nations in the sport. Everyone would also lose out on chances to enjoy days like today, where were struck a blow for the smaller teams," Savio suggested.
The biggest day of Masnada's career
Fausto Masnada has won other races, including the overall classification of the Tour of Hainan stage race in China, but his stage victory at the Tour of the Alps was the biggest day of his career.
"This is a big win and big for me. Winning in Italy is a far bigger deal than in China," he said, still emotional and giddy after his late attack worked out and gave him the scalp of some big-name riders, including Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and Chris Froome (Team Sky).
"I managed to beat some of the best riders in the world. Nibali and Froome are a level above me, but I work hard to improve every day, and I know I'm learning all the time and getting better and better at reading races.
"Today I was with them with two kilometres to go but wasn't freaked out by it. I knew I had to play my cards. My legs were there, nobody came after me and so I won."