Memories of Michele: Scarponi remembered as an entertainer, a motivator and as a warm human being

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If Saturday brought the shock, the news that Michele Scarponi had been struck by a van and killed while on a training ride, Tuesday is when cold reality sinks in. The funeral of the 2011 Giro d’Italia champion took place in Filottrano and was attended by his Astana team and staff plus many others from the world of cycling.

Scarponi’s passing is one which seems to have affected many, even those who never met him. The death of any young person seems wrong, but video clips of Scarponi showed someone who was full of life and passion, who had a laugh when he could and who showed a more multi-faceted character than many professional athletes. Not for him the ultra-serious approach: while he could be very disciplined, he also took time to smile, to laugh, to lighten the moment and to remind others that it is only a sport.

Perhaps this is why there is such affection for him from cycling fans, even those who were dismayed by his involvement in Operaction Puerto, and his later relationship with Dr. Michele Ferrari. He made mistakes, but was also a very charismatic human being.

The famous video clips of him training with a neighbour’s macaw Franky seem to bring that home particularly well. He had a bond with the parrot, who would fly alongside him, land on his back, peck at his helmet and bring a smile to all those who saw the clips.

Many riders have had their say on social media in recent days, celebrating Scarponi’s life. CyclingTips spoke to four others who crossed paths with him earlier in his career; a race organiser, a journalist, a press officer and a former teammate from his time as an amateur rider.

Each of those gave their own perspective on what happened as well as their own insights into the charismatic Italian.

‘He was someone who was always smiling, always laughing’

Michele Acquarone worked with Giro d’Italia parent company RCS Sport for many years and was race director between 2011 and 2013. Scarponi finished second in the 2011 race and was later awarded the overall victory after Alberto Contador was disqualified for his 2010 Clenbuterol positive.

In the years since then the two Micheles took different paths. The rider continued in the sport, dedicating himself to Astana team leaders such as Vincenzo Nibali, and helping him to overall victory in the 2014 Tour de France plus in last year’s Giro d’Italia. As for Michele Acquarone, he and others were sacked by RCS Sport in 2013 after financial irregularities were detected. He is currently fighting the company in court, suing for defamation, and insists that he is innocent and was made a scapegoat.

“Michele was a special guy. In the peloton, everybody loved him. He was a very nice person. He was somebody who was always smiling, always laughing… That was Michele. He was a great captain and a great gregario.

Any time I had an opportunity to speak to him, every time he was very nice. He was nice with me and with everybody in my staff, with his teammates, with media.

On Saturday I was at home with my kids. I received a message: ‘Michele is dead. He crashed while he was training for the Giro.’ I couldn’t believe it.

For me it was really bad. I was thinking about his family. I am just going out of a very bad period and now my family is starting to feel good again.

Any time when I was feeling very bad, I was thinking, ‘okay, but I am still alive. And tomorrow I will wake up and I can do something to make things better for me and for my family.’ But now they cannot. The Scarponi family cannot. Anna, and his very small sons are now living in a very black, dark time because the husband and the father are missing.

And so you start asking why? Why? Why is life so cruel? Why is life so bad? And you have no answers.

You read all the messages and everybody is missing him. You still think about his family and you feel like shit because there is nothing, really nothing, you can do to bring him back. There is no second chance for him now. And it is not right. And of course you also think about all the young kids who die in Africa every day. You remember that you are so lucky.

The only thing I can say is that life is like that. Today you are here, tomorrow you are perhaps not here. You have just got to try to live you life in the best way every single day. And when you go to sleep, you are just thanking God that you had another day to live. I’m really sorry for Michele’s family. I hope that they can find the way to go on.

Several years ago we lost Wouter Weylandt in the crash in the Giro. Of course I’ve been thinking about him too. Now I know that An-Sophie and Alizée [Wouter Weylandt’s wife and daughter] are happy again. Even though it was really, really bad for both families, life goes on. So I hope that there is something beautiful in the sky for Michele, Wouter and all the good guys who left us, and that their families can find a way to survive.

That’s what I feel when I speak about Michele and Wouter. Because you cannot accept it. If you are 35, you cannot die like that in the morning, just training for the race that you love.

If I think back to special memories of Michele, I remember the day when we gave him the Giro trophy in Denmark. Of course he was happy. His name was on the trophy and I remember showing him that. But at the same time I remember that he said that it is not great to win like that. ‘I want to have the victory on the road, and I will do my best to win it again.’

Scarponi, in red, leading race leader Alberto Contador in the 2011 Giro d’Italia. He would later inherit the pink jersey and race trophy, but it wasn’t the way he wanted to win the race.

Last week when I read that Michele was supposed to be the captain of the Astana team, I was thinking that it could be great if destiny can give him the opportunity to win the trophy in the 100th Giro. Of course, he is old and there are a lot of very strong riders, but you never know in cycling. Even Roger Federer was very old and did something very good this year. And so I was thinking about somebody with a lot of years that could do something special.

When I think back, the best memory is of course Michele with the Giro trophy. Of him laughing about winning the trophy in a press room.”

‘Michele was everybody’s friend’

Currently working as press officer with Team Novo Nordisk, Chris Baldwin previously filled the same role with the Astana team. He was with the squad from December 2012 to December 2015 and consequently spent two of those years working alongside Michele Scarponi.

He explains how he heard the awful news on Saturday, then gives an insight into the rider’s character, his vital role on the Astana team and a standout memory from their time together.

“I was at the Tour of Croatia. It was early in the morning. I was with the mechanics and the soigneurs doing some filming, just doing my job. One of the mechanics walked up and said in Italian that Scarponi is dead. Everybody knew who he is and everybody just looked at him. ‘What?’

He said, ‘he was hit by a car at home.’

In disbelief, I grabbed my phone and googled it. And sure enough, there was a Facebook post by a local newspaper in Varese.

I had just finished breakfast, but the riders had not yet come down to eat. You can imagine that there is the tragedy of knowing that it had happened, but then there is the tragedy of knowing that there are people yet out there who have yet to learn it. And some were very, very close friends of his. I burst into tears because it was so sad.

In terms of his character, Michele was everybody’s friend. I thought I was special because he remembered my name and said hello when he saw me in Tirreno this year. He made everyone feel special.

At the top level in this sport, there was nobody like him. He was alive and alert. He always had something funny to say and always had a comment for somebody. When the race was hard, he took it as serious as everybody else did. But when it was over, it was all part of just enjoying life for him.

Meeting the locals at the 2014 Tour de San Luis.

Michele, more than anybody, went out of his way every day to remind us all that we are in this sport because we love it. Because we fell in love with it as boys and as girls. And we are here because it is fun. That that is the most important thing to remember. Whether it is a banal transition stage or whether it is an exciting Classic, or whether it is the long slog of a Grand Tour, we are doing this because this is fun. And that is the thing to remember.

It was that same quality which was very important in helping Vincenzo Nibali to switch off when he needed to. That was also the case in the 2014 Tour de France and last year’s Giro, races Nibali won.

Vincenzo is a wonderful guy. I can’t say enough good things about Vincenzo Nibali. But Vincenzo Nibali is a champion’s champion, and he is at the top of his sport. He takes his job incredibly seriously. And so when Vincenzo has a little bit of stress, and when he feels there is a little bit of pressure on him in a race, he draws the circle quite close around himself. This is a normal and natural reaction in all human beings.

You can imagine that Vincenzo came into a measure of attention that is really sort of unimaginable for ordinary people. He’s a four-time Grand Tour champion, and two-time champion of Italy. There are all these people coming in who want a piece of him.

Michele was really important in dealing with that. Sure, he won last year’s Giro for Vincenzo Nibali, helping him tactically on the bike and strategically on the bike as well. But more than that, when it came time to relax, when it comes to time to just enjoy life, Scarponi is the guy who puts the needle in the balloon and lets the air out. He makes everybody laugh.

He will do silly things like put his helmet in the microwave and turn it on. Or he will make a coffee and start singing a song. Or he will jump off the bus, give a fake speech to the people there and then walk up to Alessandra de Stefano [RAI television journalist] and start talking to her. He is just a guy who just really, really loves the sport and loves the atmosphere around it.

And so for Vincenzo, to have that really more than anything just made his life easier and it made shouldering that burden that much less onerous.”

Michele Scarponi is credited with helping Vincenzo Nibali to relax at tense moments. Impromptu shoulder massage? No problem.

‘He was the brightest light in the cycling universe’

Chris Baldwin continues his reflection on Scarponi’s life:

“I’ve got two recollections of Michele. When we were at our darkest hours at Astana with these problems with the UCI and these problems with the positive doping cases, it was Scarponi who kept our spirits up. It was Scarponi who kept us moving forward. Even in times of stress, it was he who would chill us all out. I can remember quite clearly at some training camps in the year where Scarponi would just sit back and say, ‘okay, let’s let everybody have their say, let’s let everyone bleed their stress out, and now let’s just have fun. Let’s enjoy this as well as we can.’

In terms of a specific memory, we were at a team training camp at a private hotel in the Dolomites. It was the last push in June 2014, just before the Italian national championships that Vincenzo went on to win. The riders were there for nine or ten days, sleeping high and training low every day.

At the same time, they were also watching their weight to make sure they don’t put anything on and, if anything, that they were actually shedding off those last few grams before the start in England.

I had invited a Paris reporter to come out and do a profile on Vincenzo before the Tour. We walked into the family restaurant. Everybody was really friendly. The guys were all eating. I quite proudly took the reporter over and sat him down next to him. I didn’t really notice that the guys were on a really simple, basic diet there of just skinless chicken breast and white rice, tomato slices, low fat yogurt and apricots for desert.

The reporter and I, we had full run of this lovely family hotel and we ordered the best stuff off the menu. We got bresaola, which is a different slice of prosciutto. And mozzarella, which is fatty and full of protein and just tastes so good. Then we had these big lasanges each apiece. And then we had this big chocolate pudding and whipped cream desert.

But you could kind of hear the moaning from the riders’ table because they were watching this food come in.

Scarponi got up at the end of the meal. He marches over in grand style as everyone is leaving. He grabs my pudding cup that I had finished. He sticks his finger in it and wipes the brim. And with this huge theatrical flourish, he smacks his lips and he licks his finger, and he says, ‘I can’t wait till we do the Alps and we get to eat again!’

And the reporter is French, and so he says, ‘vive la France, vive la Tour, bon appetite!’

Everybody laughed about it because it was funny. Michele was just making fun about the situation and just taking the edge off.

And that’s really what he was. He was a sweet guy who knew that everybody suffers and everybody is having stress.

The more and more I look around and I see more and more memories from more and more people, the more I realise that this guy was just an unique individual. He was just the brightest light in the cycling universe. It is so dark now that light has gone out.

Many people have seen the videos with the parrot. I didn’t know about that until after I left the team. But think about this. This man talked to birds. I can’t get a bird to follow me. Can you get a bird to follow you? That’s amazing. This is a special man. This is a man with a huge heart. He was special.

He saw the world in ways that most of us don’t.”

‘He would turn the corners of your mouth upwards’

Matt Rendell has worked in a wide number of roles within the sport, ranging from journalist, author, TV commentator and interviewer, team press officer and as part of the Giro d’Italia’s organisation. His work has intersected with that of Michele Scarponi, giving him his own particular glimpse of the Italian’s personality.

“First off, I wouldn’t want to be quoted as someone who pretended to know him. I didn’t know Michele well. He was someone I didn’t know much beyond saying a greeting, and he greeted everyone with a one-liner. A conversational gambit and a response.

But I can say that when I worked for the Giro organisation, we would sometimes be in the same hotel as Scarponi’s team. He would always come around the dining room, stand there and greet everyone on the different tables. Hold court, tell a joke, tell an anecdote from the day.

He was just absolutely open, utterly friendly to everyone. Warm, in a sport of loners like cycling. In a sport of the strong, silent types, he was atypical. He was just a lovely presence. He would just turn the corners of your mouth upwards for a moment.

There is a sense that it is fun working on the RCS races. The Italian races have a feel to them, because you go to those small villages and there is food and so on. And sometimes when they get guests from other big race organisers, they are rather surprised by the family feel to the Italian races. In a way, Michele captured the spirit of that. His smile and general demeanour was kind of the heart and soul of that.

So a little piece of what made, and makes, the Italian races unique and so much fun is sort of gone, which is a terrible shame.

Everyone is in shock about what happened. It is not just the riders. It is all the team staff. Even people like me, and photographers who are in the same boat as me, people who wouldn’t say ‘yeah, he was a friend of mine,’ also just feel that way.

In a sense we all have our circle of intimates. But Michel had, probably bigger than anyone else, a circle of those people whose names he probably never knew, whose roles he never knew. He was just utterly open to everyone. So there is a bigger sense of having lost just a little regular moment of warmth with someone who was obviously quite a star.

No matter how you try to avoid the clichés, cycling is a travelling theatre. It is a great big school excursion, with a lot of the same people all the time.

More than friendships, there is a huge amount of people whom you see on a daily basis. You are not really quite sure who they are, what nationality, or even what language you should speak to them in.

There are two ways to approach that. You can either ignore people you don’t really know, or acknowledge the fact that you see them every day. To say hello, have a smile, a ‘how are you, and how is it going?’ And Michele was the very epitome of that.

‘He was every day the joker. Every day with the pranks.’

David McQuaid has been involved in the sport his whole life, being born into one of Ireland’s most well-known cycling families. The son of former UCI president Pat McQuaid, he himself raced internationally. He represented Ireland and also competed with the highly-regarded Zalf Fior team in Italy in the early 2000s.

During that time he was a teammate of Michele Scarponi and has fond memories of him.

“When I woke up on Saturday last and learned the news of Michele’s passing I was dumbstruck. I really found it hard to comprehend. Just a few days earlier I was delighted about what was his first professional victory in a few years.

During my two years with Zalf Fior Michele was probably one of the squad’s riders that I hung about with the most. That was simply because of where home was for him: it was quite far away from Castelfranco. There were perhaps four to five of us living permanently in the team house. Other guys came in from local homes for race days and team training spins on a Thursday, but Scarpo was one of those guys living permanently at the team house.

He was exactly like all those others have remembered him: every day the joker, every day with the pranks, whether it be in the team house, at the dinner table, the team bus or out training. Scarponi took the piss out of me a lot as I was the foreigner learning the language. He found real amusement in teaching me new words.

I remember I got my revenge one day he came down the stairs in a three-piece suit. Forever I had only known him in a team tracksuit. This day he was taking the train back home on some team leave. He wore a three-piece silver suit just to travel. That day I took great satisfaction in highlighting how vain Italian men were!

Scarpo was in his prime in the last ten kilometres of a training spin. He was a bit Sagan-esque, if you like. Wheelies, hanging onto tractors taking in the grapes. Doing U-turns in the road, playing about. He loved his ice-cream too, but that too lead to many many skin pinches. But he was always the leanest in his mind…it was the rest of us that were carrying too much!

In my final season with Zalf I was a bit disillusioned with the sport and thinking of jacking it all in. Funnily enough, so too was Michele. We had chats about it at the back of some of the group rides when the pair of us just had zero interest. But unlike myself he got through that low and went on to have a long career as a pro. It was a bump in his road. He had a few then after, but he kept going. I guess he did really love cycling.

There was serious side to Michele. He took his racing seriously. I was at races where he won. He enjoyed winning races. He was a talented bike rider, like most of his teammates at Zalf. But Michele won regularly. That lead to a pro contract and I always followed his career afterwards, just as I do with that of Quinziato. I probably see Manuel more at races each year, but also Michele still too. In the past years it was in Calpe as the Astana team were always present at the Diamante Beach hotel where our Baku team were staying.

There you saw the real Michele: down in the lobby till late in the evening, laughing and joking about with people. He took his job seriously but it did not overrun his life. He was still a human being at the end of the day and I’m sure he was a great, fun father to his two twins. I’m gutted for them.

His is a tragic loss. There is no other way to describe the fickle way Michele’s life ended.

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