Portrait: Luca Paolini
The maestro, the director, the wise man, the conductor of the giant moving orchestra...and the unsung hero at Sunday's Milan-Sanremo, for a second year running. Our interview with the peloton's road captain par excellence, from Rouleur #52
The maestro, the director, the wise man, the conductor of the giant moving orchestra. There’s many things you could call Luca Paolini. Throw in one more: the cyclist’s cyclist. Fans may rarely notice the work the veteran Italian puts in, but he is worth his weight in gold to Katusha and Alexander Kristoff when the Classics roll around, calling the shots in the background.
The role of road captain demands so much more than talent: it is racing with the mind as well as the legs, calculating tens of tiny, ever-changing elements while racing all out. It is patience, experience, intuition, tactics, reading of tiny signs in yourself, your leader and your rivals, knowing the course, weather, racing instinct, nerve; even personality and comportment off the bike.
A case in point of Paolini’s value is last year’s Milan-Sanremo. “Luca helped me a lot,” Kristoff said as practically his first words in the post-race interview. Too right: watch it again. He shelters Kristoff for the final 20 kilometres, keeping him in place, then hits the front near the top of the Poggio to inject some pace, drawing more venom out of the purer sprinters’ legs. After the descent, he moves Kristoff into the perfect position with three kilometres to go and hits the front with 1,500 metres left for a mammoth turn. He leaves Paolini on Greg Van Avermaet’s wheel, effectively dropping a Classic win into his lap. Paolini has been doing similar work for years, using his own bullets for the likes of Paolo Bettini, Danilo di Luca and now Kristoff.
“He is the last of the old school riders. His vision and way of reading a race is incredible. That’s why Bettini and [former national team manager Franco] Ballerini always took him,” says Astana rider and fellow azzuro Dario Cataldo. Paolini is the first name on the Italian team-sheet each year, only missing one World Championships since 2003.
It’s easy to forget Paolini’s individual class. His wins are infrequent but high quality, from the 2013 Het Nieuwsblad to Brabantse Pijl and a stage victory at the Giro and Vuelta. The near misses couldn’t be more prestigious either: he’s finished third at the Tour of Flanders, the World Championship road race, Milan-Sanremo and fourth at the Tour of Lombardy.
From his unique philosophy to cycling to his beard and bespoke helmet design, Luca Paolini is a one-off, something to be celebrated in an increasingly identikit bunch – especially as it could well be his last year in the bunch.
Rouleur: How would you describe your role?
Luca Paolini: There are moments in races that the directeur sportif doesn’t see, when there’s no time to wait. Many times, I assume the role of decision maker, using my experience; perhaps it’s partly a personal gift I have too. I think that when I have a champion at my side, I can really get 100 per cent out of myself. I don’t think I’d be as strong if I was the leader.
You’ve talked of your closeness with Alexander Kristoff. Can you build a special relationship or does it have to be something natural?
It’s fifty-fifty. Ultimately, I think an intense understanding between two riders starts because it's already in the air.
How did you communicate with Kristoff during the 2014 Milan-Sanremo?
In a finale, when you’re going 60km/h, it's all about gestures. At the end of the Poggio descent, when we hit the Via Aurelia, I didn't know if Kristoff was still in the leading group. I turned round and saw a red jersey coming – it was him. He gave me a little nod of the head as if to say ‘yes, okay’, and I understood he was good and ready.
From his sprints at Flanders, Roubaix and Sanremo the previous year, I knew he would have more left than the others so I decided to put myself at his service, to use a bit of my experience about the race. I knew the corners, how to measure my efforts.
I’ve talked with riders and figures inside the sport who perceive you as an old-school rider with a special reading of a race.
Well, thanks to them for that. I had the chance to ride alongside men like Zanini, Museeuw and Van Petegem, champions who could read the race from the back of the bunch. I turned professional with Mapei and I've always been someone who had a desire to learn from these leaders. Like them, I don't like to stay in the first 40 positions in a race – there’s too much stress. I prefer to sit behind, trying to stay relaxed but still paying attention and understanding when it’s the right moment to make the move. If it’s a race I’ve already done many times, I know when that moment is about to happen.
So I think it’s all about experience. I've been a pro since 2000 so I’ve done, for example, Milan-Sanremo 12 or 13 times. I know exactly where a rider can win or lose that race. Of course, interpretations change too. When the Tour of Flanders became a finishing circuit, I think it became a bit easier for everyone. Because you have more chances of seeing it: if you mess up the first time, you can correct things the next. A bit of craft, some strong legs and you can do well.
How was that first training camp with Mapei?
I was very shy and there were a lot of riders. Being around Bartoli and Museeuw, legends I was used to seeing passing in the street in the Giro d’Italia, or reading about in the newspapers, was emotional. But I think I integrated quickly, even with them, because they felt my strong desire to learn.
That is probably one of the things that young riders are lacking these days. Perhaps those that turn pro don’t have much of a will to learn, they think they already have the knowledge, that their path is already set – and that's not true. I'm proof that sometimes you can still learn something from an old guy.
Who are the classiest leaders you’ve ridden for in your career?
Paolo Bettini and Oscar Freire, two non-conformists. Paolo was strange because so many times he used to do strange things in races, like sprinting off 100 kilometres from the finish, for instance. Well, he was strong enough to do that kind of thing. Me, I'm different, I need to use my mind more as I’ve got less gas.
Freire and I are a similar age, he even has a similar way of riding to me, always staying hidden and popping up at the right moment. He was a bit forgetful and disorganised, his shoes over there, his head in the clouds… He didn’t follow exact training sessions like you do nowadays; it was more about sensations at that time, feelings and emotions. In Italy, we call those types mosche bianche [one-offs].
Are you a bit of a non-conformist too?
I’ve adapted over the years because cycling has specialised. Every team has its own coach, so the general level has risen a lot in the bunch. Before, perhaps I trained more on feel and used races as a point of reference. Now, from December to October, we all have to be on top form all year. There’s no room anymore for riders at 60 per cent.
When did that change?
Around 2008 to 2010, when every team started to have specific internal coaches and every athlete gave them their power or heart-rate data. With Team Sky and others studying this data, weight, all these things, the performance of a rider improved. So everyone went over to this type of training.
I’m not so interested in all that. I don’t trust the numbers 100 per cent; 30 per cent of it, I try to gauge my sensations. I think that modern riders are almost programmed. Sure, I like modern cycling, it’s more professional, but it’s also lacking a bit of humanity. Also with smartphones – and even like the atmosphere in the airport with riders nowadays, you get to know one another less.
You can hardly talk, Luca: we saw a photograph of you riding along with your iPhone in a Tour stage in July.
That’s a funny story. When you’re at the Tour start village, there’s so much radio and TV around, it's almost impossible to get any phone signal. That day I must have gone a kilometre away from it to try and call my family. Then after 30km of riding, I reached into my back pocket and realised that I had forgotten to leave it behind.
So, what remaining ambitions do you have?
Kristoff will be even stronger than last year: I’m sure he can do well in the spring Classics. Then I will see during the season if my path crosses with Purito [Rodriguez]’s. I’ve won all the Classics there are to win [with a leader], I’ve taken the Olympics with Paolo [Bettini] but I’m missing being on a Grand Tour-winning team. That would be a beautiful end to my career.
When will you know the right time to call it a day?
Good question. I'll be 38 this year and I think it’s fair to see month by month what my head and legs tell me. So many times in 2014, I already thought it was the right time to stop, but then during the season, I did things that made me see I still have a place in this world. I’ll live every day giving my all this year because it could be the last one [as a professional].
Do you ever think you have been too selfless in your career?
To be an altruist in this world is a difficult balance. I’m aware of that. Some people call me too nice or stupid because I don’t take my own chances [smiles]. However, it’s impossible to change it and I like being like this, doing what I feel at that moment in races. Being more selfess has suited me well, helping many great champions win.
You’re currently in the second level of directeur sportif training. Who is the most influential one you’ve had in your career?
I worked with Franco Ballerini in the national team. He made you do things with passion, he had a way of involving riders that I liked a lot. He gave you motivation, not by banging his fist on the table, but by chatting, like we are now, or by giving you a pat on the back. He believed in you as a person. Franco is among the best that I’ve had. And he's no longer with us and I always like to remember him.
Finally, the beard. Cycling is a sport rooted in conformity; why did you start growing it?
Ha! Initially I just wondered how my face would look with one, knowing that it wouldn’t be viewed well by many in cycling. But in every walk of life, there’s a fashion and I’m not the only one; some have beards, long hair, moustaches, sideburns. Maybe it’s a companion in my sporting old age [smiles]. Plus I’ve read studies into wind resistance with a beard – it makes absolutely no difference.