Perhaps the widest smile atop Mount Etna on Sunday belonged to Androni Giocattoli manager Gianni Savio, as his charge José Rujano was the man to put up the most robust challenge to Alberto Contador's dominance on stage 9 of the Giro d'Italia.
"I'm really happy," Savio told Cyclingnews at the finish area. "I'm proud that he resisted a great champion like Contador. Our team did a great race, and above all I'm happy for José Rujano."
Rujano finished in 3rd place at the 2005 Giro when under Savio's stewardship, but has achieved precious little on the world stage since, drifting from team to team and without ever rediscovering the magic formula from his days at the then-Selle Italia squad. Against such a backdrop, Savio was only too keen to depict the Venezuelan's revival on Etna as that of a prodigal son returned to the fold.
"I discovered him when he was an unknown in a pueblo in the Andes and I brought him to Italy," Savio said, recounting the tale of when Gianni met José. "In three years, along with Marco Bellini, we helped him to grow. We brought him on, and he managed to finish on the podium of the Giro d'Italia."
In the wake of that startling performance at the Giro, however, things began to go sour, as Rujano angled for a move to pastures ProTour. He departed Savio's squad midway through 2006 to head up Quick Step's Grand Tour challenge, but it only marked the beginning of what seemed a terminal decline.
"He was badly-advised," Savio said diplomatically. "But time is a galantuomo, a gentleman, a great judge. We took José Rujano on again [ahead of the 2011 season - ed]. We took on a rider who had left us, who hadn't done anything because he was lost. He changed team a lot, big teams, like Quick Step, Unibet, Caisse d'Epargne and he never had results. Now he's back with us, and today he showed he's a rider again."
But how is it that Rujano's best results have come while riding for Gianni Savio's team? Savio didn't bat an eyelid as he responded, and put Rujano's return to form down to his environment.
"I think - modestly - that I'm a good psychologist," Savio said. "I come from football. I think that a great manager in the professional ranks isn't one who teaches the players how to play, because the players already know how to play.
"You teach young players how to play, but the important thing for a professional manager is to create a good atmosphere in the dressing room. That is, to put the rider into the psycho-physical condition to be able to express himself and that's the important thing for José Rujano. I think we have a structure that gives us a very united group."
After former rider Luca Di Angeli levelled grave accusations against Savio's team on the eve of the Giro, the Androni Giocattoli manager is doubtless enjoying some positive attention for his squad, and he believes Rujano can sparkle further in the Dolomites.
"For José Rujano, this Giro is absolutely open," he said. "Even if he's six minutes down now, I think he can make up some of that. Our aim is to have a rider in the top ten and I think we can do that."
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