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Pellaud rides with 'free spirit and tranquility' at Giro d'Italia

Giro d'Italia 2020 - 103th Edition - 7th stage Matera - Brindisi 143 km - 09/10/2020 - Marco Frapporti (ITA - Vini Zabu’ - KTM) - Simon Pellaud (SUI - Androni Giocattoli - Sidermec) - photo Luca Bettini/BettiniPhoto©2020
The stage 7 breakaway included Switzerland’s Simon Pellaud (Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec) (Image credit: Bettini Photo)

For Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec manager Gianni Savio, the Giro d’Italia is a social event as well as a bike race. He usually can’t go more than a few metres at a stage start without spotting an old friend. In Matera on Friday morning, he must have walked up and down Via Lucana four times without meeting a soul. Such are the realities of even the greatest human festivals in a time of physical distancing.

An autumn Giro in the middle of a pandemic is rather different in feel, but some aspects of the corsa rosa remain unchanged. Giro stages still have breakaways, and Giro breakaways always have Androni-Sidermec riders. 

“We’ve had five road stages so far and we’ve been in the break five times,” Savio said proudly. “But it’s not as simple as just telling the lads to go in the break. We have to work together and plan it every day.”

Simon Pellaud is in his first season at Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec, and riding his debut Giro, but the Swiss rider has already demonstrated a keen understanding of the rhythms and demands of both the team and the race. He caught the eye as the last survivor of the break on the road to Villafranca Tirrena on stage 4, and he echoed his manager when he reported for the start in Matera on Friday.

“We’re five out of five for breakaways so far, I hope today we can make it six out of six,” Pellaud told Cyclingnews. “Personally, I’d like to be the one to get in there, because it would be nice to avoid the stress of the wind and the echelons.”

As if to make sure, Pellaud was in the break not once but twice on Friday. He was part of the day’s first attack that went clear almost before the gruppo had left Matera, but that move was snuffed out after Jumbo-Visma and Deceuninck-QuickStep split the field in the crosswinds shortly afterwards. When the peloton regrouped midway through, he went on the offensive again, this time for 12 kilometres or so in the company of Marco Frapporti (Vini Zabù–KTM).

On a stage run at a record average speed of 51.234 kph, there was, of course, little scope for breakaways, but railing against the odds is a part of the Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec philosophy. The team’s romantic, almost quixotic, worldview perhaps tallies with Pellaud’s own, who had a three-year adventure at the Continental level following the demise of IAM Cycling at the end of 2016.

Pellaud’s travels brought him to Colombia to train with his friend Edwin Avila in that first winter out of the WorldTour, and a part of him never left. In time, he met his girlfriend in Colombia, bought some land near Medellin and built a house, earning the nickname of El Suizo Colombiano: the Swiss Colombian.

A life that toggled between Europe and South America made him a perfect fit for Savio’s Italo-Colombian outfit, and he moved back up to Pro Continental level with Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec this year. 

“My personal equilibrium is also the equilibrium of the team,” he said. “When I joined, I signed for two years, so I’ve got that tranquillity which allows me to concentrate on the race here, and ride with a bit of a free spirit.”

Lockdown

After racing with his new team at the Vuelta a San Juan and Tour Colombia in January and February, Pellaud returned to Europe in March only for the coronavirus pandemic to bring the season to a halt. His first instinct was to travel back to Colombia, which was at that  time relatively untouched by the COVID-19 crisis.

“Once I found out that Strade Bianche and Tirreno-Adriatico had been cancelled, I immediately took a flight to Colombia because I thought things would be calmer down there, but it turned out to be a lot stricter than in Switzerland,” Pellaud said. “I was in full lockdown in Colombia. I had 70 days where I could only ride on the turbo trainer.”

By May, Colombia had closed its borders and prohibited all commercial flights for the foreseeable future as part of its efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19, which put Pellaud’s entire season at risk. While Colombian professional riders were eventually allowed to travel to Europe aboard a specially-chartered flight in mid-July, Pellaud found passage back to Switzerland aboard a humanitarian flight the previous month. “It was important for me to spend some time with my family too before I started my season again,” said Pellaud.

Even citizens of the world have homes, and at that point, Pellaud was still dreaming of the chance to race a World Championships in his native Martigny. The COVID-19 restrictions in Switzerland saw the event cancelled in August, but the 27-year-old at least had the consolation of earning his first selection for the Worlds, riding in Imola in support of bronze medallist Marc Hirschi.

“It was unexpected because I didn’t find the level I’d wanted to find this year, and I was a bit disappointed with that, but you don’t turn down a selection for the World Championships,” Pellaud said. “I really enjoyed being able to work for a rider like Marc Hirschi. I went there 100 per cent to be an équipier and it was a fantastic experience.”

Racing at Giro d'Italia

Even before 2020, riding a Grand Tour could feel like a form of social distancing. When Pellaud raced the Vuelta a Colombia for the first time, he couldn’t help but compare it with his more solitary experiences at the Vuelta a España in 2015 and 2016. 

“You can spend three weeks in the peloton at the Vuelta a España and not speak with anyone,” he told Cyclingnews in January. “In Colombia, I’d already spoken with half the peloton in the first five days.”

This year’s Giro makes for an unusual kind of Grand Tour experience, where riders and their teams operate in a ‘bubble,’ distanced insofar as possible from the tifosi and race followers. Once the flag drops, the racing is as whole-hearted as ever, but the ambience is more muted.

“It’s different,” Pellaud said. “When you’re on the bike and racing it’s the same thing, of course, but once you’re off the bike, everything around the race is different. And we’re following the news all around us, too. We saw today that Paris-Roubaix was cancelled. It’s a complicated situation. I just hope we can keep on racing here in Italy.”

Even if the Giro continued until Christmas, Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec riders would probably be on the attack every day, not merely to show the jersey but to poke out a stage win, as Fausto Masnada did in their colours last year. “That’s our mission,” said Pellaud.

That daily assignment is his focus for the time being. The conundrum of whether to spend the off-season in Colombia or Switzerland must wait until after the Giro. 

“That’s the big question,” Pellaud smiled. “It’s complicated for the moment because it’s all shut down, so we’ll see. Day by day.”