Davide Rebellin is still racing at nearly 49 years old

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You mightn’t have heard of the Sibiu Cycling Tour. In a regular racing season, this small Romanian stage race tends to go largely ignored by the majority of cycling fans. But this year’s edition — the race’s 10th — might just be a little different.

For one thing, this five-stage event — which runs from July 23 to July 26 — is the first chance to see WorldTour riders duke it out in a stage race since Paris-Nice was cut short in early March. Sure, there’s just two WorldTour teams on the startlist — Bora-Hansgrohe and Israel Start-Up Nation — but given the dearth of racing in recent months, any opportunity to see top-tier teams in action will surely be appreciated.

But the race’s most interesting participants aren’t on WorldTour teams.

On Tuesday, Sibiu Cycling Tour organisers announced that multi-disciplinary all-star Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) would restart his season at the race in what is his ProTeam squad’s first-ever visit to the Sibiu Tour.

Van der Poel is perhaps the highest profile rider the race has ever attracted. Sure, Primoz Roglic was third back in 2014, Egan Bernal won it in 2017, and Ivan Sosa won it in 2018, but none of the three had the same profile then that they have now.

Securing Van der Poel’s attendance is a coup for the Sibiu Cycling Tour. His mere presence should attract more attention for this year’s race than any previous edition. And if he arrives with anything resembling good form, well, we all know by now what he’s capable of.

But look even further down the startlist, past the ProTeams and into the ranks of the Continental squads, and things get even more intriguing. Way down near the bottom of the list is the small Croatian outfit Meridiana Kamen. It’s a relatively young squad — four of the six riders are 24 or younger — and at 32 years old, 2012 Giro d’Italia stage winner Matteo Rabottini would normally be the veteran on the team. Not on this team though. Not when your line-up also includes Davide Rebellin.

The 48-year-old (no, not a typo) re-joined Meridiana Kamen in mid 2019 after several years spent bouncing between small European Continental outfits, and after racing with Meridiana Kamen back in 2012. He’d planned to retire after the Italian road championships in June last year, but announced just a day after finishing 18th in that race that he would continue on.

“So many of you asked me if this was my last race or if I’d continue,” he posted on Facebook at the time. “The emotions and warmth that I felt are too strong and my desire to continue to repay this love is too strong. I want to have some good feelings again and pass them on to you too.

“So I decided to race again because even with the idea of being a helper, I can feel my heart beat.”

Rebellin’s career has been one of significant ups and downs. Among his 60 career victories are a stage of the 1996 Giro d’Italia, the 2001 Tirreno-Adriatico, Paris-Nice in 2008, and all three Ardennes Classics in 2004. In his day he was a prolific winner and even as recently as 2017 — aged 45 — he was still winning races at the lower levels.

On the other side of the coin, he served a two-year ban from early 2009 after testing positive for the blood-booster CERA at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where he finished second in the road race behind Samuel Sanchez. Rebellin has been a controversial figure ever since and his continued presence in the peloton is a point of contention for many who are keen to leave the sport’s questionable past behind.

And yet, there’s something intriguing about Rebellin and his longevity. It’s hard not to be fascinated with a rider who continues to ply his trade more than a decade after most of his peers would have hung up their wheels and moved on to pastures new. It’s natural to be curious how long he will continue on. Will he still be racing when he’s 50?

Davide Rebellin in action at the 1995 Liege-Bastogne-Liege (left) and 1996 Giro d’Italia (right).

Rebellin first turned pro way back in 1992, three years before Mathieu Van der Poel was even born. Which brings us to an interesting piece of trivia dug up by Dutch site Wielerflits this week. When the Sibiu Cycling Tour gets underway in a couple weeks, Rebellin will have raced against both Mathieu Van der Poel and his father, Adrie.

Rebellin and Adrie Van der Poel faced off many times throughout the 1990s, including at the 1992 Paris-Tours, the 1993 Amstel Gold Race and the GP de Fourmies in 1998. Indeed, such is the length of Rebellin’s career that the Van der Poels aren’t the only father-son pairing he’s competed against.

He’s shared a peloton with Erik Zabel and Rick Zabel, Stephen Roche and Nicolas Roche, Bart Leysen and Senne Leysen (the latter being a current teammate of Mathieu Van der Poel’s), and with Roman Kreuziger Sr and Roman Kreuziger.

Stage 1 of the Sibiu Cycling Tour is one for the climbers.

Don’t expect Rebellin to feature too prominently at the Sibiu Cycling Tour — he might have won the race back in 2013, but seven years on — and a month out from turning 49 — the tides of time are well and truly against him. And as good as Van der Poel is, don’t expect him to win the race overall — a 25 km stage-ending climb and a 12.5 km uphill time trial make this a race for the climbers. A stage win is a possibility though — two flatter finishes and a prologue time trial suit him well.

Regardless of how it all shakes out, and regardless of whether you think Rebellin and Van der Poel make the Sibiu Cycling Tour worth paying attention to, there’s one thing we can all surely agree upon: it’s just exciting to see bike racing get underway again.

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