Attempting to assess the state of Italian cycling is one of the most difficult things to do in the sport at the present time. Despite the recent economic difficulties, there are encouraging signs that the sport is on the rise again.
However, there is evidence that the biggest Italian cycling fans are retired males, with the younger generations caring more about football and other sports. 2017 marked the first season where there was no Italian registered team in the top tier of the sport, although teams like Astana, UAE-Team Emirates and Sky have a massive Italian influence in their rosters. Despite the number of Italians racing in the WorldTour, the nation still has only two star riders, Fabio Aru and Vincenzo Nibali. Gianni Moscon is on the way to becoming a star, but he needs a few more Classics performances, as well as resolving personal issues off the bike before he can make the transition. Matteo Trentin has had a great career so far, but is not yet considered a star rider, and the same can be said for Davide Formolo, Sonny Colbrelli and Elia Viviani. The rest of the biggest Italian riders are either approaching the final years of their career (Visconti, Oss, Pozzovivo, Gasparotto, Gatto), or have so far failed to fulfil their immense promise (Moser, Capecchi, Villella, Bettiol). There are still plenty of lower tier sprinters who win smaller races, but Grand Tour sprint wins are harder to come by.
All is not lost, as there are a few promising young Italians starting off their careers, like Filippo Ganna, Simone Consonni, Edward Ravasi and Simone Petilli. But despite the vast number of Italian riders excelling in the U23 ranks, do the WorldTour teams rate them? While Nippo-Vini Fantini, Bardiani-CSF and Wilier Triestina-Selle Italia all turned three Italian riders pro this offseason each, only Matteo Fabbro (Katusha-Alpecin) and Nicola Conci (Trek-Segafredo) made it to the WorldTour this winter. There were actually just as many Italians going pro at WorldTour teams than there were foreigners who race on Italian U23 teams going pro at WorldTour teams this winter, and both Mark Padun (Bahrain-Merida) and Alexandr Riabushenko (UAE-Team Emirates) have made better starts to their pro careers than Conci and Fabbro have. And some of those riders the Italian Pro Conti team have turned pro were riders who were in their final year as U23s, meaning if they didn’t find a deal, the dreams of going pro were virtually over. Sky picking up 24-year-old Leonardo Basso straight from Continental level is a story that just doesn’t repeat itself very often.
From the 12 riders already confirmed in 2018 to be going pro at the season’s conclusion, just two are Italian. One rider, Matteo Moschetti, is headed to Trek-Segafredo, but he actually races for Spanish outfit Polartec-Kometa and has achieved most of his big results away from Italy. The other rider, Luca Covili, is going to Bardiani, so cycling’s second division.
Despite this, Italian races at U23 level are still nigh on impossible to predict. At the time of writing, we have had six one-day races in Italy and we are just about to have the season’s first stage races in Toscana. Of those six one-day races, four have been won by Italians and of the possible 18 podium spots in those six races, 9 have gone to Italian riders.
Interestingly, while there are a few key players in these races who will age out of the U23 ranks at the end of this season, like Trofeo Edil C winner Alessandro Fedeli, Filippo Rocchetti and Cezary Grodzicki, a lot of the top Italian U23s have multiple years of eligibility left, with some riders actually only entering the U23 ranks this season, like Fabio Mazucco and Andrea Bagioli, who was 2nd in Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Below are the current top Italian U23s this season, and the year they were born in. 1999 riders are first year U23s whilst the class of 1996 are in their final season.
1996: Alessandro Fedeli, Filippo Rocchetti, Cezary Grodzicki, Mattia Bais, Giovanni Lonardi, Yuri Colonna (who, worryingly, is still to race this season)
1997: Trofeo Piva winner Paolo Baccio, Francesco Romano, Francesco Di Felice, Matteo Sobrero, Cristian Scaroni, Nicolas Nesi
1998: GP San Vendemiano winner Alberto Dainese, Mattia Bevilacqua, Simone Battistella, Luca Mozzato
1999: Fabio Mazzucco, Andrea Bagioli, Omar El Gouzi
Based on what we have seen so far, none of the five members of the class of ’96 look like WorldTour level riders, and there are yet to be any rumours linking members of the ’97 class to the top tier either, although 3rd overall in Toscana will help Scaroni’s case, and Sobrero may catch eyes too. The real gems are Bevilacqua and Battistella in the ’98 class, and teams like UAE-Team Emirates may be tempted to turn those riders pro at just 20, like they did with Ganna, but that is still a longshot. Bagioli, who was Italy’s only stage winner on route to winning the Toscana Terra Eroica stage race overall, will have plenty of suitors after the start of the season he has had, but turning pro at 19 after just one year at U23 level would be a disaster. Just think how many seasons it took for Matej Mohoric to get to grips with WorldTour racing after going pro at 19.
So, what exactly is the issue? Infrastructure is not a problem, with plenty of top U23 teams based in the country. Opportunities to shine are not lacking either, with 11 U23 one day races, as well as three stage races, including the resurrected Baby Giro.
Despite the country’s lack of star riders, they do still churn out WorldTour riders each season. Yet the nation has not won the U23 Worlds since 2002 and has only had three podiums at the race since then. Their last Tour de l’Avenir win was 1973, back when the race was an amateur event. In the last twenty years, they have just two third place finishes and one runners up spot to their name. even in their own races, there is a slump. In the last five Baby Giros (2009-2012 and 2017), they have won just one. Conci was their highest place finisher last year in 7th, over three minutes down. They won just one of the eight stages. After winning three straight titles in Giro Valle d’Aosta between 2011 and 2013, Italy has not won one title since, with only two of a possible twelve podium spots being held by an Italian the race’s conclusion. They did at least win three of the five stages in last year’s race.
The fact that a lot of the nation’s top U23s are falling to the Pro Conti level is not necessarily a bad thing, as it will allow these teams to grow stronger in time, as well as offering a good program with space and time to grow without pressure. This could even see the nation return to it’s pre-2010 era, when some of the best Italian riders rode for Pro Conti teams (although in some instances, that was because they had just returned from suspensions for being a bit naughty). Despite the lack of international U23 results, Italian U23s are winning where it matters most: in Italy. As long as they keep doing that, and top local races and teams don’t begin to disappear, then I think the sport at U23 level will be just fine. The locals may take a different view however, as their desperate search for the heir apparent to Nibali and Aru in the mountains and Cippolini in the sprints looks set to continue at least past the 2018 season. Is their saviour one of the riders mentioned above? Only time will tell…