The meaning of the pursuit: An esteemed domestique wins his final race

by Peter Flax


This story, by necessity, must open in Okinawa, Japan, on an anonymous incline on a deserted highway surrounded by lush greenery. Four bike racers, none of them household names, are in a breakaway with 15 kilometers to go. One of these four riders is almost certainly going to win the Tour of Okinawa, a 200-kilometer UCI 1.2 pro event held in November that doesn’t generally produce noteworthy racing news. But today is going to be different.

With a little more than five kilometers remaining, whatever cooperation that held the break together to this point falls apart. Chun Kai Feng, a veteran Taiwanese pro who mostly races in Asia for Bahrain Merida, launches a hard attack on an uphill stretch that sends one rider out the back with his head and shoulders slumped.

The other two riders cover the move. One of them is a young man. Freddy Ovett is 24, a stagiaire with BMC Racing who today is racing in the white and blue kit of the Australian Cycling Academy. The other racer, by pro racing standards at least, is not a young man. Alan Marangoni is 34, an Italian racing in Japan for the Italian squad Nippo–Vini Fantini.

After a hard, 400-meter effort out of the saddle, Feng sits down and looks over his right shoulder to confirm that fourth rider has been dispatched. He’s gone. But at that instant, Marangoni jumps, slicing to the right edge of the highway. Feng and Ovett try for a few seconds to respond to that counterattack, but the move sticks.

With a 50-meter gap, the tall Italian puts his head down and starts churning the pedals like something major is at stake at this relatively minor, late-season bike race.

That’s because something important is at stake. Marangoni is riding the final event of his 10-year professional career. During that stretch, he’s won a grand total of zero races.

This is a story about something more important than individual glory in bike races, but surely that isn’t on Marangoni’s mind as he passes a small sign indicating that two kilometers remain. He keeps glancing over his shoulder and peeking under his elbow to see where the young Australian and the cagey Taiwanese racer are. They’re still less than 100 meters back — still working together, still in range.

Marangoni is in the drops, making faces and pedaling in a manner that strongly suggests that he is not exactly enjoy himself.

But he does not relent.

•••

This tale opens in Okinawa, but it truly begins in the Italian province of Ravenna. Alan Marangoni was raised in a commune of 7,500 residents called Cotignola, located about an hour from Bologna. He was born on July 16 in 1984 (a memorable day in cycling on which Luis Herrera dropped eventual Tour de France winner Laurent Fignon to triumph on Alpe d’Huez).

The boy was drawn to cycling from an early age. His father was a coach, and the undulating, country roads around the Ravenna province were full of riders in kit. The area had long been a hotbed of cycling talent; Marco Pantani and Davide Cassani, for instance, both grew up within an hour’s bike ride from his home. When he was six or seven, Marangoni and his father went to watch the Giro d’Italia pass through a nearby community. The pageantry and speed impressed the boy.

He entered his first bike race when he was only nine. “I was fucking afraid,” says Marangoni with a chuckle. We’re having a FaceTime conversation ten days after Okinawa and the newly retired pro is in London. “It makes me laugh now to think about it. I had a lot of paranoia about all the things that could go wrong.”

Marangoni didn’t win that first race. But it didn’t take long for his talent and work ethic to pay dividends. One does not go on to forge a decade-long pro career, even as a journeyman domestique, without significant talent. It’s like having a Powerball ticket with five of six correct numbers — it’s not enough to take the grand prize, but still a one-in-a-million outlier that is more than most of us can ever imagine.

The young Italian won a lot of races. He could time trial. He could climb. He could finish off sprints. Even though he had no single extraordinary gift, it seemed like he could do a lot of things very well.

In 2007, soon after he left the U23 ranks and not long before he got his first pro contract, Marangoni did a race in the Veneto region. He remembers it well. In the finale he was in a three-man break and wound up out-sprinting a younger guy named Gianluca Brambilla for the win. (Brambilla, who presently rides for Trek-Segafredo, would go on to be Alan’s teammate at Colnago-CSF and later win stages at the Giro and the Vuelta and stand on the podium at Strade Bianche.)

“I still occasionally give Brambilla crap about that, about how I beat him in a sprint, when I see him,” says Marangoni of his successful former teammate. “But that was the last race I would wind up winning.”

•••

Between 2011 and 2016, Marangoni competed for some very good teams stacked with extraordinary talent. On various iterations of teams sponsored by Liquigas and Cannondale, he rode in service of champions like Ivan Basso, Vincenzo Nibali, Rigoberto Uran, and Peter Sagan.

Marangoni had more than a few close calls with individual triumph. In a one-day race in Bergamo in 2008, he got pipped at the line by a 20-year-old who never before had won a pro race — his name was Marcel Kittel. More than once, Marangoni finished on the podium at the Italian time trial championship

His most memorable near miss came in Stage 10 of the 2015 Giro d’Italia, which finished only 25 kilometers from his hometown. There, he made a four-man, all-Italian break that would never get caught.

“Yeah, I remember that one,” says Jonathan Vaughters, who was manager at Cannondale-Garmin that year. “He’s the kind of rider where, at this level, the only way he’s going to win a race is with a long bomb. But it only works like one out of a hundred times.”

It didn’t work that day in Forli. Marangoni launched solo with 1.6km to go, with a move that looked to be a winner. But he simply ran out gas in the final few hundred meters and got overhauled by his breakaway companions. He finished fourth.

But there is more than one way to measure an athlete, and by some accounts Marangoni could do things that many pro cyclists could not sustain for more than a decade. Over the course of his career, he completed more than 150,000 kilometers of professional racing in over 700 days of competition. He rode the Giro five times and finished five times. He rode the biggest spring classics countless times. Many strong riders lack the determination to spend a decade riding that far and hard and long in the service of more talented teammates.

Alan Marangoni at a 2012 Liquigas-Cannondale training camp in Sardinia.

“He was the best kind of all-around domestique,” recalls retired pro Ted King, who joined Liquigas in 2011, the same as Marangoni, and was his teammate for five years. “As a domestique, you’re rarely thrust into the limelight, you’re just racing for your team leaders. And the reality is that in most races, at least 90 percent of a pro peloton is a domestique in some regard. Alan was as good as they come.”

The life of a domestique at the highest level of the sport is not easy. If you are a support rider on a team stacked with champions, the middle portion of many races will demand a lot of brutally long pulls that rarely show up in television coverage.

It also involves sacrifices that are nearly invisible to outsiders. At the 2014 Belgian classic E3 Harelbeke, for instance, Marangoni’s job was to support Peter Sagan as deep into the cobbled race as possible. With around 100 kilometers left to go, Sagan crashed, and then struggled to remove a damaged wheel. Marangoni, who is the same size as Sagan, simply dismounted and handed his Cannondale to the Slovak. Sagan went on to outsmart and out-sprint Niki Terpstra and Geraint Thomas for the win. “That finished the race for me,” says Marangoni. “But I saved Peter’s ass.”

In a manner that speaks volumes, when asked to describe the greatest day he ever had on a bike, Marangoni cites a Grand Tour stage in which he finished 102nd. Then he tells me his narrative of stage 7 of the 2013 Tour de France.

Alan Marangoni (Cannondale) on the attack during the first stage of the 2013 Driedaagse van De Panne-Koksijde.

The first week of the 2013 Tour had not gone to plan for the Cannondale squad. Many riders on the team had gone down in crashes, including both Sagan and Ted King, who suffered injuries that ultimately would disqualify him from that Tour. In four of the first six stages, Sagan had finished second or third. So on the morning of stage 7, the team formulated a plan to change the script. And it wound up being one of those days on which a plan is actually carried out and works.

With roughly 120 kilometers to go in the race from Montpelier to Albi, Cannondale came to the front at the start of the category 2 climb up the Col de la Croix de Mounis. Marangoni and a few teammates went to the front and just drilled it. “We went full gas the whole way,” Marangoni recalls.

At the top of the 6.7-kilometer incline, the hard pace had dislodged all of Sagan’s most dangerous sprint rivals in the race; Mark Cavendish, Andre Greipel, and Marcel Kittel all had lost two or three minutes. But there still were more than 100 kilometers and no more categorized climbs to go before the finish and no teams that shared Cannondale’s interests to bring Sagan to the line.

Omega Pharma-Quick Step sent Tony Martin back to help pace Cavendish back to the front, and Greipel and Kittel’s teams committed to the chase, too. But with Marangoni and three teammates in rotation up front, the peloton, strung out in single file, covered more than 46 kilometers (29 miles) in the fourth hour of racing over lumpy terrain.

There were a couple of lulls, but it mostly went like that all the way into Albi. Sagan took the intermediate sprint with 70 kilometers to go, with multiple teams chasing hard in a large group two and a half minutes down. The big group containing the other sprinters’ teams finally sat up with about 35 kilometers to go, but at that point there was still a three-man breakaway containing Jan Bakelants up the road to contend with.

In video replays of the finale, Marangoni can be seen at the head of the race until the break is reeled in with only a few kilometers to go. At that point, Marangoni and Moreno Moser swung off to the side of the road and pulled the plug.

A little more than three minutes later, Sagan came around John Degenkolb and held off Daniele Bennati for the win. When he crossed the line, he did not throw his hands in the air but instead pointed both hands to the Cannondale logo on his chest. Cavendish, Kittel, Greipel and more than 80 other racers wound up finishing more than 14 minutes later.

Marangoni and Moser rolled to the line exactly 95 seconds after Sagan had triumphed and in highlight reels it appears that the Slovak had been whisked out of the finish chute before they could gather for a hug or celebration. But in a press conference later that afternoon, Sagan acknowledged the help he’d received. “I’m very happy,” he said. “I have to thank my team because I couldn’t do what I did without my team. This victory is for all of the team.”

And that concluded the self-proclaimed highlight of Alan Marangoni’s career. “The last 10 or 15 minutes of that stage I had such bad cramps,” he tells me, recounting the toll of holding off nearly a hundred racers for 115 kilometers. “I’ve never been so completely fucked and yet so completely happy to have done something great.”

•••

There’s arguably more to succeeding as a domestique than long pulls and big watts — at least that’s how it’s been for generations in pro cycling. In conversations with several former teammates, all related how Marangoni always had a spirit that lightened the mood and made the endless suffering more bearable and brought genuine community to his teams.

Alex Howes, a teammate for three years on Cannondale squads, took notice. “He’s always had a presence on the road, doing the work that no one really wanted to do. His biggest asset was his heart,” he says. “But where he really shined was at the dinner table, team camps, stuff like that. He’s one of those people that people always like to have around. It’s just not that easy to be so lighthearted, especially with the sport of cycling, it’s just so fucking hard. To have an attitude like that day after day, year after year — it’s pretty impressive.”

Alan Marangoni (Cannondale) at the 2014 Giro d’Italia.

Howes recalls an episode a few days before the 2015 Road World Championships in Richmond, where Marangoni rode on Cannondale-Garmin’s team time trial squad, finishing 12th.

“Everyone was all serious with race prep but he convinced a police officer to help him make this video where he got fake arrested,” laughs Howes. In the video, with Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa” droning in the background, a uniformed Chesterfield County Sheriff with a perplexed smile cuffs the Italian rider, in his team polo shirt, and pushes him into a squad car. “I mean, who does something like that? I think when he emailed it to the team he wrote he’d gotten arrested for loving his bike too much.”

Ted King also remembers a lot of laughs. Like the time he went through rookie hazing with Marangoni in 2011. “It involved a lot of grappa high up in the Dolomites,” he says, “but we were by and large healthy after that.”

King says that training rides in Belgium, especially when Marangoni and Sagan were present, typically would involve local chocolate.

“The whole team would go out, and though the team directors thought we were doing a big, formal training ride between races, the reality is that we’d ride into town and go to the coffee shop and eat a mountain of chocolate,” King recalls. “Alan and Peter were always leading the charge to the coffee shop and the chocolate shop. Alan was always just a character to be around. He’d give 110% in every race but he also was a lot of fun to be around.”

Marangoni admits that he put effort into these interactions and moments. “I’m proud that I lived what I believe is a cycling life,” he says. “It was important to me to help create laughs and family moments on my team. That’s not easy. Cycling is hard if you do it as a job. That’s especially true these days; many young riders don’t think to have fun. Everyone is thinking about losing weight and doing intervals; teams like Sky are so serious. iPhones and other devices don’t help. Now riders spend more time alone; they don’t stay together as a group after dinner like we did 10 years ago.”

Alan Marangoni (right) chats with Filippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida) and Elia Viviani (Team Sky) before Stage 2 of the 2015 ENECO Tour.

Vaughters, who started riding as a pro in the mid 1990s and has remained in the sport as a manager since, says that Marangoni — “a great people person” — is the kind of domestique who is slowly but surely being weeded out of the sport.

“The veterans who understood the value of laughter and knew all the roads used to be highly valued,” says Vaughters, who also confirms how time after team dinners has changed over the years, as guys who used to bond together now head up their rooms to Skype girlfriends or stream Netflix. “And technology also has changed how course recon can happen and most pro teams feel pressure to find young, hot talents, to just sign up the biggest motors.”

In Vaughters’ mind, it’s getting tougher for riders like Marangoni, who have modest talents in the realm of the World Tour, to stick out a long career. “

One thing I remember about Alan is that he really was willing to work to become a better rider,” he says. “He wanted to go out every day with Rigoberto [Uran] even if his body couldn’t quite handle the workload. It was tough to tell him to rest. Maybe that guy didn’t have the talent but he definitely had the guts. I never saw Alan not try his best.”

•••

The last couple kilometers at the Tour of Okinawa are not a thing of conventional beauty. Marangoni is laboring and his pedal stroke is getting choppy and his head is tilted a bit to the side. From the age of nine, he’s had an understanding of all the things that can wrong in a bike race. But the two chasers are running out of road and are not closing the gap.

The domestique who has thrown plenty of long bombs, the kind that succeed only one in a hundred times, looks like he’s finally going to score a win. His first pro win.

“In the closing meters I thought about my whole career,” Marangoni says. “I thought about how I have been racing bikes since I was nine. I have made so many sacrifices to this sport and now I was having a dream come true.”

He makes no outward gestures until he’s about 150 meters from the line, but after one last look back, Marangoni thumps his chest a few times with his right fist and breaks into a smile—and just as he nears the finish line he throws his arms sideways and then up, as if to gesture finally.

“My win, it is like a dream. It was intense,” Marangoni says. “After the race was over I watched it again and I had the same feelings. Of course it wasn’t Paris-Roubaix or Milan-San Remo but for me it was like a World Championship. I have lost a number of races in the final meters. All my life I have wasted energy in the breakaway so this was the first time I did everything right, saving myself for one big effort. I knew I only had one big bullet to shoot.”

Alan Marangoni (Nippo-Vini Fantini) at the 2017 Tour of Oman.

As our conversation comes to a close, Marangoni admits that he always had three goals as a professional cyclist, and how he was prepared to end his career with only two of them accomplished. “From an early age, I knew I wanted to ride with the greatest champions, and I did that,” he says. “And I wanted to be able to decide when I was going to leave the sport, to quit on the day of my choosing rather than failing to find a team like many riders.”

But that third goal, to win a race before he retired, had seemed out of reach — until that afternoon in Okinawa. He laughed and cried in the finish chute, about that minor triumph and all the major sacrifices that had informed it, about the years of suffering and the laughter and the pursuit of something larger than himself.

You could say it was Alan Marangoni’s first victory. Or you could say it was his final victory.

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