Winning a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympic Games was a dream come true for Italian Marco Fontana of the Cannondale Factory Racing team. While the race didn't go exactly as planned due to a late mechanical, years of hard work still paid off in the chance to stand on the podium after the cross country mountain bike race in Hadleigh Park.
"It definitely changed my life. It's not so much that I'm more famous," said Fontana. "People recognize me on the street... sometimes.. but it's not like I'm a soccer player. The thing that has affected me more is the fact that I am now somebody who is part of the mountain bike scene in a way that what I do and what I say is connected to people and what they do and what they say."
"I am like somebody who is watched by everybody. It changes the way I ride and the way I act. It's not like I just race and ride my bike any more, but still I enjoy that. I will always love to ride my bikes. Now, I like the fact that what I do may push people to do the same. I have more power to talk to people now about what I really like."
Success has had another side effect for Fontana; he noted that he's been much busier since winning his Olympic medal. More people want his time for interviews and sponsorship obligations, but he still has to fit in all the same training. "In a week, you have seven days and if you spend two of them going to Rome for interviews, then you just have five left to train and compete at the highest level. It's not easy; balance now is even more important than before."
Overall, 2012 was a positive year for Fontana. "The whole season was good and very consistent," he said. "I had a few races where I felt like I was close to winning, like the Nove Mesto [World Cup] for example."
He described his Olympic experience. "The Olympics is something special and being out there in front was like 'Oh yeah, I'm really there.' I had a good race, and I think I was the smartest in the leading group, and that's why on the last lap, I could still attack and try to escape. It didn't happen, and then I had a broken seatpost, but I'm happy with what we achieved and how we achieved it. It was a tough problem and we came to the end and made it happen. It was a four-year program based on the London Olympics. The way to get there was long."
He is hoping to step up from being consistently on the podium to winning some of the highest-level races. "I'm confident that I can win. On the other hand, the team is putting more effort in me now, and for sure, the pressure is more. But you know, Nino [Schurter] has to deal with it as well and so does Jaro[slav Kulhavy]. It's part of the game and being professional and being a man."
Fontana isn't wilting under the pressure, but is embracing it at this point in his career. "I have like every step along the way. Now that I'm here, I don't say 'I prefer when it was easy like four years ago when I'd just stepped onto the team.'"
What comes next for the good-humored Italian racer is the Cape Epic mountain bike stage race, starting on Sunday, March 17 in South Africa. It will be the first time he takes to the start of the popular eight-day mountain bike stage race or for that matter any major endurance event.
"I've never done a marathon race in my life... or any stage races," said Fontana. "We will hit the prologue hard and then take it easy the whole week. It will be hard, but good training. I'm looking forward to it."
"We are going to have a good time, that's for sure," said Fontana, who is partnering with Manuel Fumic. "Honestly, I'm not scared, but I know it's going to be a tough one. Everyone says, 'Hey you're a pro, it will be easy if you take it easy.'"
"But I know it won't be easy at all. I think it will be the hardest race because it's long and I don't know the trails. It will be challenging. In a way, I like it - it's like Paris-Dakar."
Fontana is thinking of the race as training but knows that because it is a race, it will push him to go harder than he would if he were training on his own. He is planning a good rest afterward, so he can recover and be fresh for the opening World Cup in mid-April.
2013 World Cup season
Fontana has one primary goal for the season: to win a World Cup and/or the Worlds.
"Obviously it's not easy, and everybody will be giving their best," said Fontana. "If you come near the top, then you have to bet on the top for World Cups and the world championships as well."
"I've never properly won a solo world championship jersey although sometimes I've had the feeling that I was there to win. I feel at some point that I will wear that jersey."
"When I see Nino or Jaro wearing that jersey, I want that jersey!" he said. "It's something special. [Jose Antonio] Hermida was 32 when he won it. [Steve] Peat was like the same. I hope I don't have to wait four more years - I can't wait that long!"
Fontana will race the Italian national series and the Italian national championships, where he hopes to defend his title. "I will be pissed if I don't win the Italian national championships, but it's all about the World Cup. We have six chances to win with the World Cup and one more for Worlds."
In an ideal world, he'd love to win the Val di Sole World Cup. "It would be big to win that race. I also like Nove Mesto a lot. These are my two targets for the first part of the season. I don't know if I can win many races - we have seen it is not that easy. If I have to bet on one race to win in the second part of the season, it's Worlds."
Fontana is expecting this season to be nothing like 2012. "Olympic years are always different. We will not have one guy who will win the seven important races. It will be interesting - there will be different winners, and I hope to be one of them."
"It's usually about Nino and Jaro, and [Julien] Absalon is always still there. I think Lukas Flueckiger could win a race, too, if he can find the way and train right."
"In cross country racing, there is no lucky day where you can make it happen," he said. "It's not like downhill, where you might get dry weather during your run while someone else gets a wet run. In cross country, the strongest man usually wins."
Fontana keeps himself fit over the winter by racing cyclo-cross. "Cyclo-cross is part of my life. I love cyclo-cross," he said. "The problem now is that every year I have more and more pressure, well not really pressure, but you know it's like, 'You're Mr. Fontana and you can't just show up and be 20th or something'."
That didn't stop him from defending his Italian 'cross national title and making the podium at the Rome cyclo-cross World Cup.
"I knew Rome was my course - I've known that for a few years," he said. "I remember after nationals last year, I decided not to do Worlds this year, but I would go for Rome. I would be ready. Everything happened right and I had some luck in that the guy who was second had a mechanical. I started in the back, but what matters is what happened. I got third, and I was happy to be out in front in my national kit and on the podium."
Fontana drew many cheers from fans by bunnyhopping barriers throughout the race. "That was a small help," he said modestly. "Just one time, I hit the ground. I like to try every way to be the best on the course, of course. There I could do the bunnyhop, and it was nice, all the people were cheering. Some 'cross riders can do it, too, I don't know what they didn't."
"[Sven] Nys - probably the best cyclo-cross rider ever, can do it, but I don't know why he didn't. Maybe it wasn't a good day? I know he can bunnyhop well. But I'm happy for him because he won Worlds, and the way he raced and the way he shows up at races is impressive. He is very consistent and he is one of the best athletes ever."
In total during the 2012-2013 season, Fontana did about 10 or 11 'cross races. He decided to do Worlds, but an early mechanical ended his chances and he completed just 1.5 laps. "I had fun, but I really don't like to travel to races and not achieve results. I really hate it."
If Fontana has his way, he will be achieving plenty of good results this coming mountain bike season.
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Sue George is an editor at Cyclingnews. She coordinates all of the site's mountain bike race coverage and assists with the road, 'cross and track coverage.