The writing was perhaps already on the wall for such a move when Rouleur interviewed her in 2014. In these choice extracts from Rouleur 54, we find a motivated, determined and tactically astute rider, who’d question old training myths, dispute the patriarchal structures that dominated women’s cycling and had already taken on a fair dose of DS responsibilities as a youngster…
“When I arrived, I destroyed everything. Sometimes with a really old-school person, I’m like the Tasmanian devil. I go over them and ‘Wa-schoom!’ – change it all,” says Giorgia Bronzini.
You can imagine crusty old Italian cycling coaches, their life and training principles unchanged since the days of medicine ball drills and Ercole Baldini, spluttering on their pre-ride espressos as she walks into the room. They would look at the girl with the short haircut, chin piercing and flower tattoo and think ‘mamma mia, here comes trouble’. Yes, here comes someone in control of her own destiny; here comes a wind of change sweeping through Italian women’s cycling.
She started destabilising the establishment with one disarmingly simple question. “Since I was young, every time the coach gave some training, I asked: ‘Why? What is the reason?’
“Now with the younger girls, maybe I’ll say ‘do you know why you’re doing that exercise?’ They don’t. And I go ‘why are you doing it if you don’t know what it is?’ I try to teach them to understand the body and what they need… One day, they might read something crazy in the training plan. Maybe the coach writes ‘do 50 kilometres out of the saddle’. I’m pretty sure someone would try it.”
It’s just as well that someone who regularly questions the methods comes up with the goods. Few riders in the sport can better Bronzini’s consistent record, her 2010 and 2011 women’s road race world titles the best of the sprinter’s 70-plus victories.
Following someone else’s blueprint of how a cyclist should be is not for Bronzini. She is an occasional tattoo designer, a gastrophile whose back-up plan, had cycling not worked out, was running a bar, or as a soldier in the Italian army. It sounds as if she belongs in a Roy of the Rovers-style cycling comic strip, not on the sports pages.
As we talk, Bronzini also questions the prevailing tired dogma that she has noticed in the sport. “In the winter, younger girls want to go running and the coach goes: ‘No, because the day after, they have sore legs’. They are 14 years old, what is going on? They must try everything. Maybe cycling isn’t the best for them. Maybe she’ll run and see that running is her life, her passion. Not every girl can be a champion on the bike. So I prefer them to discover everything and choose afterwards.
“Another thing: so many guys in this sport don’t work with women as staff. I only know one or two teams that have women soigneurs. The Italian team, working with girls and only wanting male staff. Why?
“If a young girl has a personal issue, you can bet that she won’t go to a 50-year-old man to say ‘I have a problem with my boyfriend’. Maybe during massage with a female soigneur, they get talking and maybe she’ll explain. The masseur understands why the girl in that race isn’t ready, or is sad, and it’s information for the director too. And everything works better, because women understand women better in some situations. Right now, with Italian teams, it seems they don’t understand.”
Has she talked with Italian technical commissioner Edoardo Salvoldi about this? “He said ‘I have no pleasure working with women staff’. Before him we had another directeur sportif and we had women on the staff.”
DS in training
A women’s national team manager who states that he doesn’t like having women staff? You’d think that might be a problem in, well, any country other than Italy. But it’s complicated: Salvoldi is not only behind several of Italy’s World Championship triumphs but Bronzini’s two titles also, as her trainer since the early years. “He taught me to be patient, that’s one of the strengths of my character, and he has supported me through good and bad… I hope one day he can open his mind to working with women. Maybe me and him can collaborate after I finish my career.”
That idea has been floated before. “Some newspapers, like the Gazzetta dello Sport, said that when I stop cycling, being a director sportif would be good for me. Once I said ‘why not the international team?’ and they wrote ‘Salvoldi out, Bronzini in’,” she says, laughing. “Or we can do the job together.”
The Italian teams that Bronzini rode with early in her career were fun and familial, but disorganised. “They gave me the responsibility every year of choosing the team and the events,” she says of her time at Diadora-Pasta Zara.
Race schedules were sometimes changed last minute; other times, team-mates would ask Bronzini if they were travelling by plane or van – usually the latter, given the budget – and she’d have to check with the team manager. “It was a lot of stress,” she says. “It was like being a rider and a director too.”
Winning team tactics
When her career ignited at the 2010 World Championships in Geelong, nobody seemed to expect it. Seeing the toughness of the Australian circuit before the race, Salvoldi asked Bronzini to race as road captain for the others. She even told brother Maurizio to not bother getting out of bed ridiculously early in the morning to watch the live coverage from Down Under, seeing as she’d be on domestique duty.
Looking back, Bronzini wonders whether Salvoldi was trying to pique her desire to prove people wrong. Ten minutes before the start, the wily coach told her to save some energy: “Tell the girls what they must do, but if in the two last laps you are there, change your tactics completely and it’s all for you.”
Low and behold, she was still in the bunch for the final lap. Although briefly dropped over the last climb, she fought back for a dogged win, waiting till 50 metres out to launch her sprint as Marianne Vos and company faded around her. Even then, it was still a surprise for some.
Twelve months later in Copenhagen, Bronzini had her own aura to accompany the pressure. Team-mate Noemi Cantele rode alongside her at one point, saying: “Ina Teutenberg [her new fellow DS at Trek] told me that she’s shitting herself with nerves. I saw Vos looking at you a lot, and she is nervous too. Giorgia, you stay quiet because you have it all in your legs.”
So it proved. This time, Bronzini fully exercised her calculating tactical mind. As lone breakaway Clara Hughes dangled out in front, she asked why again. Why should the Italian team chase when there were stronger teams with far more to lose?
Unwilling to risk defeat, the Dutch and Germans blinked first and chased hard. Near the end, Bronzini sent team-mates Longo and Cantele off the front before Monia Baccaille led her out. She got the run on Vos and narrowly held her off in the uphill sprint for world title number two.
It was classic Bronzini, finishing it off after a long, undulating race. Not the fastest sprinter or the most prodigious physical talent, her race smarts and clever exploitation of rivals’ weaknesses make her formidable.
Racing in rainbow stripes with Diadora-Pasta Zara in 2012, Bronzini came to wonder what was keeping her in Italy, in a lethargic system of friendly but disorganised teams, for negligible, if not completely absent, reward.
With the Wiggle-Honda team about to launch, Bronzini looked to make good on the promise she had made years earlier to former team-mate Rochelle Gilmore when the project was a pipedream.
It was no easy breakaway. The national cycling federation and the Italian army stood in her way. While her transfer was not a matter of military importance, Bronzini has been employed as an officer in the forestry corps since 2008 and needed their permission.
“I really pressurised them, because I’d be a fool to stay in an Italian team, which is what they asked of me. I said ‘if you don’t give me this opportunity, I’ll stop cycling’.”
With that ultimatum, Bronzini got the transfer and allayed their fears. 2013 was the most prolific season of her career, with 17 victories: only Marianne Vos, her perennial rival, had more. While her win rate went down afterwards, the team grew as a unit with Bronzini an influential part of that.
Bronzini’s successful move precipitated a more profound shift, as other talented compatriots followed her out of Italy. Susanna Zorzi and Italian champion Elena Cecchini now race for Belgian squad Lotto Soudal Ladies, while Valentina Scandolara (Orica-AIS) and Barbara Guarischi (Velocio-SRAM) race on top English-speaking squads. Last, but not least, there is her Wiggle-Honda team-mate Elisa Longo Borghini, who Bronzini reckons will be the nation’s next star.
“They called me and asked me about moving teams, I was happy to open their minds and eyes,” Bronzini says. “The Italian teams were not so happy, but the girls are.”
The full version of this feature first appeared in Rouleur 54