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by Fran Reyes
April 11, 2017
Photography by Cor Vos
In cycling journalism, there are several steps in the process of an interview feature.
First comes the eye-catching. One notices a nice performance from a relatively unknown cyclist, say a 22nd place on his maiden Giro d’Italia, and immediately tries to find out a bit more about the figure behind the performance. Maybe he takes a look at a local newspaper or website and reads that the rider has turned professional unusually late because he was focusing on mountain biking, switched his focus to the road as soon as his under-23 years were over, and was lucky to grab results quickly and be offered a pro contract with a second-division outfit.
Following this process, every appearance of the rider is magnified in the journalist’s eyes. Every step he takes, like joining a World Tour team, seems interesting. Another interesting step is when he is given the same racing schedule as his new squad’s marquee riders. After all, a rider’s worth is often better told by the events he is sent to, rather than which position he finishes them. If some up-and-coming athlete has a good calendar, it means that he is a prospect bound to play a relevant part for his team in the future.
After taking mental notes on the character and his sporting qualities for months, or years, the journalist starts asking around. A teammate, a mechanic, a director, a rival, another journalist — whomever may knows a bit more about the rider’s character. Ultimately, it’s time to go and talk to the rider at some start line to start to figure him out. This is the phase in which details arise — maybe one hears talk of inborn class, a good engine, and a fitting mindset.
If the cyclist begins shining, wins a semi-classic like Milano-Torino and falls 20 centimetres short of winning a Monument such as Il Lombardia, he becomes a target for a feature.
And then comes the interview.
The top three finishers from the 2016 Il Lombardia, from left: Diego Rosa, Esteban Chavez, and Rigoberto Uran.
We sat down with rising Italian star Diego Rosa (born in 1989 in Corneliano d’Alba) in a comfortable hotel lobby in the centre of Granada, Spain, after the opening stage of the Vuelta a Andalucia Ruta Ciclista Del Sol.
Earlier that morning I had spoken with Sky team director, Dario Cioni — also Italian, also a former mountain-bike pro. He seemed pleased to be asked about Rosa. “I’ve been telling Dave [Brailsford, Team Sky manager] for a long time that [Rosa] is a great rider. We spoke with him back when he was racing for Androni, but we didn’t finalise the deal and he signed for Astana. He is such an easygoing guy and has surprised everyone with how well he has fitted in the team dynamic. Also when it comes to language, he has improved so much so fast. He’s got plenty of class and is very serious when it comes to training.”
So, what are Sky’s plans for him in his first year with the team?
“This is a learning season,” Cioni said. “We are giving him a nice racing schedule without asking for too many results or significant performances. We are sure he will eventually prove his worth, we just don’t know yet when.”
Is he going to become a leader for Team Sky?
Cioni was in a hurry and needed to cut the conversation as quickly as possible: the stage was setting off and he had to jump into the team car. But that straight, affirmative answer was as meaningful as three letters can be.
The reasoning behind them was given by Rosa himself that afternoon, when he matched Alejandro Valverde, Alberto Contador, and Ion Izagirre up the appalling ascent to El Purche, also known as the Alto de Monachil — eight kilometres of steep, steady climb crowned with two gruesome sections of 10% gradient. The Spanish stars were fighting each other in a last-man standing contest, and the Italian prospect kept up with them. It was a very impressive debut in Team Sky colours. He would finish fourth on the stage, and fifth overall.
Since then, his results have been less impressive. He finished 38th overall at Tirreno-Adriatico, and did not finish the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya, abandoning on the fifth stage.
When we spoke with him, however, the season was still wide open — just like his career.
CT: Why did you decide to move to Sky?
DR: I think it’s the best team to develop yourself as a rider if you believe in your possibilities. Once you are here, the only thing you need to take care of is training hard. Everything else you may need, you just have to ask for it.
CT: With Nibali off to Bahrain-Merida, there was a vacant leader position at Astana. Wouldn’t you have had more room to shine there?
DR: Maybe. In the two years I spent there, I improved massively. Anyway, I feel joining Team Sky is a step forward in my progression. There are great champions here and I’m happy to help them. At the same time, I’m confident I will earn my grade on the battlefield. I will be able to find my chances and make the most out of them. So many people say I should aim at the GC of a Grand Tour this same year. But I feel I’m not ready for that, so in the meantime it’s okay for me to work for others and fight for victories in smaller races.
Diego Rosa (Astana) had time to celebrate after soloing to win Stage 4 of the 2016 Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco.
CT: You are viewed as a decent climber and have already shown consistency. What do you feel you are missing in order to be a GT contender?
DR: Above all, I lack experience. I’ve been a full-time road racer only for five years. Okay, maybe four of them I’ve been a pro, and that’s huge, but I still have a lot to learn. I need to manage my off-days better. I must improve on time trials, and also on the climbs because I’m always up there but usually unable to make a difference. I want to be a captain later on, whenever I feel I’m mature and strong enough to win. I don’t want to aim at top-10 finishes. And, if I were never able to contend for victory, I’d rather keep my current domestique role.
Rosa has a point here. Earlier on, we had commenced our conversation by chatting on his switch from mountain biking to the road, spurred by his ambition. “I tried to do my best and ranked only eighth or ninth in some World Cup events,” he said. That wasn’t enough for him, and thus he decided to start from scratch in what he found to be “a different sport in which I didn’t know the basics: when to eat, where to stop after a puncture, how the race would unfold… Nothing. I just got in the breakaways because I didn’t know how to stay in the peloton.”
From there, conversation flowed easily. Rosa seemed as smart and easygoing as Cioni has told us in the morning. He addressed every topic wholeheartedly. Some were amusing, as that Milano-Torino victory in late 2015, after which he stated to La Gazzetta, “I hope something has changed within me.”
CT: Did something change after that Milano-Torino victory?
DR: Yes. I knew a victory was coming because I was amongst the best in every climb. It was a matter of time. And it arrived in Torino, just some kilometres away from home. It was an unforgettable day, but not that much of a surprise, really. I knew that was my level, that I wasn’t an average rider, that if I played my cards right I could win. Milano-Torino was a confirmation of what I could do. And, you know, not much actually changed afterwards. Now I go to Lombardia or Liège and I consider myself capable of winning, and I know that I can be up there in the climbs. But I didn’t change. I’m just growing as a rider as years go by.
Other topics were less comfortable. For example, his narrow defeat to Esteban Chaves at the last edition of Il Lombardia: “It was hard to swallow.” Especially when his director at Astana, Giuseppe Martinelli, commented harshly he was “upset” at Rosa because he felt his rider had “thrown away” the rare occasion of winning a Monument.
CT: What did you make out of Martinelli’s comments about Il Lombardia?
DR: I read them at my bachelor party. I was with my friends in Barcelona and thought, “Well, the season is over, I shall enjoy my holidays.” I preferred not to answer or discuss the mistakes I made on the media. After all, I had lost by only 20 centimetres to a rider who was better than me both uphill and sprinting. My rapport with Martinelli was very good. He is a great DS and a great person. I’m sure that, had he given it a second thought, he wouldn’t have said that to the media. Besides, I understand that being upset after losing a race is natural.
Even if down-to-earth, there is one recurring theme during our interview: his desire of becoming a leader, of not sticking to the domestique role he played at Astana and will likely have to at Team Sky in the foreseeable future, including at the Giro d’Italia. “If you want an easy life, you may settle with a domestique role,” he said. “For years I’ve been thinking that my race finished with x kilometres to go. After that, my duty was to save energy. Now I have to reset my mind. I want my race to end at the finish line, not earlier. It is going to be difficult to change, but I’m willing to do it.”
In good company: The climbers came to the fore on Stage 1 of the 2017 Vuelta a Andalucia Ruta Ciclista Del Sol. From left: Ion Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida), Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), and Diego Rosa (Team Sky).
CT: Let’s speak of role models. You spent two seasons riding alongside Fabio Aru and Vincenzo Nibali. What’s your opinion on them? In which aspects would you like to be like them?
DR: Fabio Aru and the whole Astana ProTeam are dreadful rivals: they are aggressive and are never scared. I like how Fabio takes on responsibility. He speaks a lot during the team meetings, to express his opinion and even to make decisions. He is so self-confident and is so sure of everything he does. Sometimes he attacks in wrong situations, but cycling would be much better if there were more riders like him in the bunch. As for Vincenzo Nibali, he never gives up and is always capable of pulling a rabbit out of his hat. He has won races in which nobody expected him to even contend, both uphill and downhill. I would like to be like him after the race. Once it’s over, he resets, switches off his mind and doesn’t think anymore about the competition, regardless of being wearing the pink jersey or the yellow one. He is always ‘tranquillo.’
CT: And, as for the rest of the peloton, who would you pick as an example or idol?
DR: I have no idols on the bunch anymore. Right now they are just rivals, or teammates. I want to do things my way, to walk down my own path. I know that I am a different, singular rider. I’m not a pure climber, not a pure Grand Tour rider, not a pure classics man, definitely not a sprinter. Some people say one needs to fit in a role within the peloton. I want to create my own one.
This was an unexpected answer, from a man who refuses comparisons and wants to write his own story rather than try to imitate others. After all, he already is pretty unique; in pro cycling, it’s rare to find an athlete regarded as an exciting prospect at almost 28 years old, an age at which most riders are considered “established.”
We cool down talking about his two years at Androni Giocattoli-Venezuela, in 2013 and 2014. “It’s such a pity they weren’t invited to the Giro,” he said. “I’m happy I’ve been there. The squad was a small operation with the biggest commitment.”
Despite conducting the interview in Italian, we address his learning of English, and he confesses he is reading Chris Froome’s book, The Climb, both to improve his English and to get to know a bit more about his new team leader.”
And then, we bid farewell amicably: “See you in the future.” And we will, because Diego Rosa definitely has a bright future ahead of him.
Expect more champagne, and more podium finishes, from Diego Rosa in the years to come.
Fran Reyes wanted to make a living out of modeling but had to settle with being a journalist. Nowadays, he is a freelance cycling writer featuring mostly in Spanish media and goes to the gym once a week, slowly chasing his dream of posing for Yves Saint Laurent. You can follow him on Twitter: @FranReyesF