How do you solve a problem like Gianni Moscon?

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Gianni Moscon pedalled disconsolately through green fields under the grey skies of Flanders, glanced over his left shoulder, and saw the TV moto watching to see what he’d do next. The Ineos rider reached back for his race number, demonstratively pulling one off and throwing it to the ground, before trying to tear the other in half and then dropping it.

The mercurial Italian had just been disqualified from Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, after getting tangled in a crash and forcefully throwing a bike at Jens Debusschere’s head, which was about as measured and cool-headed as it sounds.

“I tumbled into the ditch and was crawling back out of it, then I had a bike – not even mine – thrown straight to my head,” Debusschere said afterwards. “I had to raise my hand to protect myself in order not to get it into my face. The bike hit me with the chainwheel.”

At the race’s finish, Moscon rode to the Ineos bus and disappeared inside to ruminate on his actions. As of writing, there’s been no statement from the 25-year-old – no mea culpa, no awkward filmed apology – but Gabriel Rasch, the team’s director sportif, braved the waiting media. After Moscon’s disqualification, Rasch had been to see the race commissaires, where they’d reviewed the footage together. “Basically, they wanted to show me the pictures on the big screen so I could see it,” Rasch said. “I agree with the decision – it’s not something that should happen.”

For any other rider, it would be a baffling footnote in their career – but not Gianni Moscon, who has form. Since being signed by Team Sky in 2016 – his first pro contract following an impressive U23 season riding for the Italian Zalf amateur team, capped by a win at the U23 il Lombardia – Moscon has matured in some ways, and in others, not at all.

His is a career marked by spurts of both brilliance and brutishness.

Talent and temper

Gianni Moscon was born in April 1994, the youngest of four children in an apple-farming family from Italy’s mountainous north. He first raced a bike at the age of seven, and, he says, he was “hooked from the start”. With encouragement from his father and under the mentorship of former World Champ and Milan-San Remo winner Maurizio Fondriest, Moscon soon showed promise, which in turn led to his ride with Zalf, and from there, to Team Sky.

Over his time with the Team Sky/Ineos squad, Moscon has become a vital cog in Ineos’ imposing Grand Tour lineup, having started the last two Tours de France. He’s shown his individual strength by having finished just off the podium – fifth and fourth – in the last two brutally tough World Championships road races.

Gianni Moscon (Italy / Team INEOS) battling for fourth place in the road race at the 2019 World Championships. Photo: Cor Vos

That’s the ‘talent’ side of the Moscon equation.

But analysis of Gianni Moscon is necessarily a little more nuanced than that, because you can’t really talk about Gianni Moscon without talking about two things – his talent, yes, but also his temper.

A history of violence

Stalking those career peaks at the Tour and the World Championships is a darker side. Moscon was disqualified from the first of those two Tours de France and copped a five week UCI ban for punching another rider; he was disqualified from the previous World Championship for hitching a lift from a car mid-race. Talent and temper; asset and liability.

Moscon’s 2017 season was arguably the most torrid in his career to date. April of that year is his career in microcosm: a fifth place at Paris-Roubaix announcing the arrival of an exciting new talent; racial abuse of FDJ’s Kevin Reza, one of the peloton’s few black riders, at Tour of Romandie resulted in a six week team ban and a formal written warning. “Gianni knows that there is no excuse for his behaviour and that any repeat will result in termination of his contract,” the team said at the time.

Ineos has spent the years since that line looking for ways to let Moscon off the hook.

After his forced six-week break, Moscon maintained that his “conscience was clear,” and rode out the rest of the season. Later that year, Moscon was accused by Sebastian Reichenbach – a teammate of Kevin Reza’s – of deliberately causing him to crash at Tre Valli Varesine, an incident that ended Reichenbach’s season but was unable to be taken any further due to lack of evidence. “These were serious allegations which Gianni and the Team have always strongly contested. We back Gianni and he has our full support,” his team said afterwards.

Gianni Moscon climbs the Mur de Péguère at the 2019 Tour de France.

In 2018, riding in service of Geraint Thomas at the Tour de France, Moscon punched Elie Gesbert of Fortuneo-Samsic, and got booted by the commissaires as a result. Team boss Dave Brailsford said that they would announce any repercussions for Moscon after the Tour had concluded; in early August, the team again came down with the weight of a feather in saying that “We will continue to give him the help and support he needs to learn, develop and move forward from this.”

That’s a stance that has some echoes in the way that Gabriel Rasch talked about Moscon’s conduct after Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. “It’s something we’re working on and have to continue working on … it’s more supporting him, and doing the right things so it doesn’t happen again,” Rasch said. “[It’s] something we need to prevent from happening again.”

Jens Debusschere finished Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne with a bleeding hand and wrist, to the news that Gianni Moscon had been disqualified from the race. Debusschere didn’t mince his words. “It’s a series of incidents and it’s always the same guy…. It’s not only this incident – there’s many more incidents,” Debusschere told Cyclingnews. “If you ask around in the peloton about how their relation is with him, then ninety percent will react negatively.”

The trials of a team

Ineos has now spent most of Moscon’s career grappling with the apparent tempest raging inside him. On the one hand, he’s an incredibly strong rider – nicknamed ‘The Tractor’, his presence can make or break a result for the team, from the classics to the Grand Tours. On the other, his presence on Ineos’ roster brings reputational damage that worsens with each indiscretion.

From salbutamol to jiffy bags to Fancy Bear hacks, detractors of Team Ineos aren’t short on reasons to dislike the team. Moscon’s presence in the squad doesn’t do much to restore its image.

But how do you solve a problem like Gianni? Team and UCI suspensions haven’t worked. HR training courses haven’t worked. Blindly supporting him hasn’t worked.

Strade Bianche, 2019.

At time of writing, Ineos were yet to respond to specific questions from CyclingTips about whether they saw Moscon’s conduct as an individual problem or a team one; about where the line now exists for disciplinary action since the team’s May 2017 statement that “any repeat will result in termination of his contract.”

Whilst Jens Debusschere got patched up and recovered from his part in the latest furore surrounding Gianni Moscon, the Italian sat in the team bus at the finish of another race that he didn’t finish. And once again, his team was left toeing the treacherous line between ‘results’ and ‘respect’ as they figured out what to do with their talented, troubled charge.

Footnote: Besides disqualification and a quiet ride back to the team bus by himself, the only penalty Moscon has received to date as a result of Sunday’s events is a 500CHF fine for littering with his race numbers.

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