There are those who say (though invariably off the record) that Gianni Savio is one of the gentleman rogues in the sport of cycling. Yet there are others who say that the 70-year-old manager of the Androni Giocattoli team is an essential part of the sport, someone who somehow manages to keep putting teams together, finding the budget from somewhere that helps keep the show on the road. A talent spotter, a second-chance giver, a man who has somehow bucked the trend in Italian cycling and economics to simply keep going.
“I’m still here because I love the sport, I have a passion for it,” explains the twinkly-eyed Savio “and it’s that passion that keeps me going.” Savio was never a pro and only ever attempted one race, in 1990, when he was 39. “It was a race for commissaires and team officials. It didn’t go well,” he laughs.
His grandfather actually raced as a gregario for Costante Girardengo and was Italian independent champion, but Savio quickly realised that, as much as he loved cycling (and football), his talents lay behind the scenes. The family business was Galli, manufacturers of brakes and rims, sponsors of a small Italian road team in the early 1980s, but in the mid-1980s the world was changing.
“How could Galli compete with Shimano? I could see that there was no future for small Italian component manufacturers, like Modolo or Ambrosio or us.” So Savio became an importer, then an agent for Maillard and Sedis and, in 1985 put together his first team and he’s been doing it ever since.
The man has more connections in more parts of the world than its possible to imagine, but in the course of our chat he mentions “his good friend Eusebio Unzué” (manager of Reynolds, Banesto, iBanesto, Illes Balleares, Caisse d’Epargne and Movistar), his connections with the ministry of sport in Venezuela and Colombian star maker Héctor Urrego.
He is, in fact, a Latin American kingpin, a man who takes delight in springing surprises on the European peloton. For all that we have become used to the idea of cycling as a global sport, when Savio introduced Leonardo Sierra to the European peloton in 1990, the Venezuelan was a curio. After all, the Colombians had only ridden the Tour de France for the first time in 1984 and Venezuela was more exotic still.
“I get people contacting me all the time, from Ecuador, from Costa Rica, Colombia obviously, Argentina, all offering riders, but it’s very difficult because of the lack of biological passport and anti-doping in South American cycling. I carry out my own tests. Really, the UCI should be running bio-passports for continental teams everywhere,” insists Savio, who has had his issues with doped riders.
“Cycling has changed, thankfully, but there was a bad era when doping was very effective and almost undetectable. We simply didn’t have the tools to combat it, it was only when the bio-passport and ADAMS whereabouts were introduced that things started to get better. Before then, riders could do what they liked and many did exactly that.”
For a man whose main pleasures appear to be beating the odds, finding young talent and revelling in the notoriety his longevity and reputation affords him, when any riders test positive, it hurts, as it did in 2015. “Yes, when you give riders a chance and then – like Davide Appollonio and Fabio Taborre – they let you down, it’s very difficult to accept. But all of my riders sign a contract which has a clause that if they test positive they pay a fine of €100,000.” It wasn’t much of a deterrent for Appollonio or Taborre, but it sends out the right message at least.
There are only four Continental teams left in Italy, no WorldTour squads and some of those operate on a smaller budget than the savvy Savio. Every year, his team turns up and turn out, even if he’s operating on a shoestring, on an inner tube that’s been repaired more than once. “A couple of years ago, the Venezuelan ministry of sport didn’t pay us, after so many years there had been a change at the Ministry – our second sponsor was gone. We were in big trouble, but Mr Sidermec – Pino Buda – gave us the money for 2015 and 2016 too. And then Sky bought Egan Bernal out of his contract.”
Bought out? “Well, all my young riders sign a four-year deal and if a WorldTour team comes in to sign them, I get a fee for finding and developing them. In Bernal’s case, I signed him as a 19-year-old and the Sky money helped keep the team going after Venezuela pulled out. So we keep going,” smiles Savio.
Savio had a major operation six years ago, he had a stent put in his heart but was still behind the wheel of the Androni team car every day in the 2018 Giro. His riders were often seen in breaks during the three-week national Tour. Mattia Cattaneo’s third on stage 17 was as close as they came to a stage win and in general classification their best rider was one of his latest discoveries, 23-year-old Fausto Masnada, 26th overall.
To be fair, there weren’t many successful breakaways in the Giro and every stage was either a sprint finish or a sort-out in the mountains featuring the GC contenders. It was not a good Giro for opportunists, among whom you could number Katusha, Wilier, AG2R and several others whose budgets and ambitions dwarf Savio’s outfit with its €2.5 million pot. Yes, that’s two and a half million Euros compared to somewhere between 20 and beyond 30 million for the sport’s big hitters.
In 2005, one of his Colombian riders finished on the podium of the Giro – José Rujano – a state of affairs that is now unthinkable, for a variety of reasons. But it’s that passing of a moment of relative budgetary parity between top teams and outfits like his that Savio regrets. “I preferred the more romantic era, it’s not been the same since… 1980.”
Savio remains a huge football fan too, even if there’s too much business involved and, he notes, “Cycling is going the same way. There’s no way smaller teams can compete in Grand Tours and even here, at the 2018 Giro, there are WorldTour teams who are not competitive. They are here, yes, but what are they actually doing in the race? The WorldTour is a good idea, but it should be limited to 12 teams maximum, the rest of the teams don’t really have the budget to do a full WorldTour race programme.”
When it comes to budget, Savio’s teams will never make the rich list, not this year, not next year and not at any time in his career in the professional peloton.
But he’ll still be there in 2019, maybe with a bigger budget but, given the current economic climate and the Italian economy, you wouldn’t bet on it. “We now have a marketing officer and a press officer, so I hope, maybe, to find bigger sponsors, but…” Savio raises his eyebrows, finishes his coffee and heads to the team car – the one with the most sponsors’ stickers in the race convoy – ever the optimist.