Milan. Wednesday, October 3, 2013
Here is a thought.
Michele Acquarone doesn’t seem to be remotely interested in professional cycling. In fact, he comes across more as a general manager in sports – like one of those international football coaches who travels through top clubs selling ideas and strategic visions. You could probably apply him to the NBA or Premier League and so I tell him this.
“That’s a great compliment,” he says. “The first thing I did when I took the job was to call four people. Pat McQuaid and Johan Bruyneel. I also wanted to hear what Bjarne Riis had to say about the business. And of course, I called Christian Prudhomme. It was informative, they all talked with great affection for the world of cycling. You see. I have a plan. From the beginning, when I took the job, I said I would do one term. Five years. Until 2017. Then I will stop. You get tired mentally. So I call it the five-year span. One year to observe and learn. One year to arrange your thoughts. One year you execute your visions and then two years to correct any mistakes and get it all right.
“But when I quit cycling, I want to do billiards! All you need is some lights, two cameras in a fixed place. We are indoors. What a set-up, huh? The British have shown that snooker works on TV. Organising the Giro is a nightmare of logistics. The helicopters alone! No. I will do billiards next.”
“Next? You might not be able to work for a long time.”
The phone rings. He leaves. Then he enters the room again. He explains how all the accountants and advisors, and anyone else in charge of the financial aspect of the organisation, have cleared all paperwork. For years. Nobody ever saw anything unusual. Even the fake signatures passed through the system. Then one day, someone appeared with one of the signatures saying: is this yours? “And I said no. No. What is this document? This is not mine. Listen. I’m left-handed. My A goes that way.”
Again, the phone rings. His wife is going to pick up their eldest child. She leaves the apartment. As the couple disappear into the kitchen, I’m left wandering around in their apartment. It is a rather ordinary three-bedroom flat. The kids bunk it in one room, there is a small office which is really more of a place where you put things you don’t know where to put. The bedroom is normal. The living room is normal. In fact, there is nothing fancy about the place at all. A wall of CDs, films, books – but not a single one on cycling – no, this couple are just like any other couple in their late thirties, they are consumers of modern western society.
Something stands out. Because someone in the house plays poker. Up on a shelf stands a trophy. “First prize, 2013.” Hmm. I look behind the sofa. I look under a chair. I go into the bathroom. A book is lying on the floor, half open. It is a novel by Rudyard Kipling. The Man Who Would Be King. It’s a fine book, but compared to the situation and the fact that someone in the house is winning poker tournaments…
I walk back into the living room. Michele enters the room. I ask him where the money is.
“It’s not behind the sofa.”
“Are you nervous?”
“Why would I be nervous?”
“You may be going to jail for the rest of your life.”
“Why would I go to jail?”
Six years later
All roads do not lead to Rome. Not in this country. They lead to Milan. A walk through the city is ever-confusing. Every year, from Milan-Sanremo in March to Il Lombardia in October, the cycling community passes through and as always, the city has gone through changes. Milan puts up more and more metal. Glass buildings overtake ancient majestic architecture in decay. Step aside, history, the city suggests.
If the city council or governing architectural body have a plan, they are hiding it well. Roadworks. Building sites. Cranes. Trucks. Cement. Noise. Italians! Italians are noisy people. They can’t sit still, they can’t stop talking and when they occasionally are doing neither they are driving their cars. Having a car – and using a car – in a modern city that has trams, a metro system, buses, cabs, scooters and even cycling paths is arguably one of the more unintelligent and unappealing choices by the human race in today’s world.
When Greta takes over, Italian car owners will be among the first groups she’ll round up. Together with Jumbo-Visma’s design team. Those colours combined with that bike for another season can only mean two things and neither of them are good.
Again, the doorbell says Acquarone. Inside his apartment we hug each other. We are not friends, but having stood in his corner for the duration of all this means something to both of us. After a series of pleasantries and formal courtesy, we sit down. He says: after something like this, you find out who your friends are. Many thought I had stolen the money.
“Now you are a free man,” I say.
“So tell me.”
“Where is the money?”
“Ahaha! Let’s party, right?”
“Let’s go back to 2013. I sat here the day after you were suspended, watching you fall apart. And we talked for some days and then you got nervous. You stopped us from printing the story and I flew home. What happened next?”
“Okay. RCS were waiting for things to go in the right direction. For them. In the meantime they were saying very bad things about me and I couldn’t defend myself. So I kept quiet and waited. Of course, they had planned my exit early. You see, I can forgive everybody, but I can’t forget. That’s me. I remember everything clearly. When someone is treating you like this, you remember it. So, okay. Let’s finish it. Now. As you know, RCS have the Giro presentation the day after Il Lombardia each year. Because everyone in cycling is here, so of course we take advantage of this. So here’s what happened: on the Friday, we had a big meeting at RCS MediaGroup. They presented a new plan because, as the CEOs explained, there was a scandal coming up. Money was missing. They needed to reorganise the company, as a sort of political insurance, so this couldn’t happen again in the future. Okay. So I was their leader, and a gentleman from inside the organisation named Mr. Taranto was our CFO, and he’d be a political figure of some sort. At the meeting, RCS MediaGroup assured everyone that I was the right man to handle this, and together with Mr. Taranto, we would get through it.”
“This was Friday. Then they said: tonight, you’ll take a car and drive to Florence during the World Championships because someone will speak about the missing money and you will assure everybody in cycling that we have it under control inside RCS.”
“I remember this.”
“So I did that. Then I set up a meeting with Mr. Taranto the following Monday. He was my new boss and we needed to steer this together. Also, Il Lombardia was coming up. Plus the Giro presentation. So this was important. We met and went through a lot of planning and decision-making about upcoming events.”
“And at the end of the meeting he said two strange things.”
“Well, first he asked me about Mauro Vegni. What did I think about him in terms of the future? And I told him that he is a very good race director, a very fine person, but he shouldn’t be a leader. We needed a younger person, someone with perhaps less experience but someone who speaks English, and this was the way we should move forward.”
“How is that strange?”
“It wasn’t. This was. Because then he asked if we really had to present the Giro the following Monday.”
“I was completely stunned! He had no concept of what the Giro was.”
“So I had to explain everything to him and then he said: you are a good guy. I’m sorry. You are a good guy.”
“The following day, this was Tuesday, I received a call saying that I was to leave the office, leave the car, my phone, my computer and I couldn’t touch anything.”
“And you texted me from your wife’s phone.”
“So Friday, I was the man. Monday, I was out. During that Monday, when I was waiting for Mr. Taranto, the board of directors had a meeting and with this scandal looming, they probably decided that they needed someone to feed to the media. Well. They chose me.”
“They had planned it.”
“Yes. I actually thought I would return soon. But now I see their vision. Do we sacrifice Michele to save the group? That was their vision. Remember it was 17 million lost!”
“Seventeen! You said thirteen?”
“The amount kept changing. I saw the first accounts. 60,000 Euros was missing and I reported it.”
“What did they say?”
“Well, it escalated to the top of the group immediately. Of course, they knew already. And then it became a public scandal. The story is that Laura, our administrative director, who has since been charged and found guilty, took the money. But I don’t believe it. She said at the trial how she took money and gave it to her bosses.”
“Which is you.”
“Yes. But it wasn’t true. Besides, inside a company like RCS, there are too many controls for one person to take that amount of money. It’s impossible. You need a strategy for something that big. I don’t know what happened and I will never know.”
“So the money is floating around in Monte Carlo and has a helicopter pad.”
“Why not? The investigation found that Laura took three million. But what about the rest? You know, people get killed for stealing that kind of money.”
“Well, now we get to my first question. Because I thought they would get rid of you. I distinctively remember sitting on this couch back then thinking that you were now a moving target. Did you think you were in danger?”
“I feared for my life. Absolutely. After I was suspended and then fired, I spent six months looking over my shoulder. I was afraid someone was going to kill me. I was the perfect scapegoat.”
At the time, my messages were in Michele Acquarone’s company phone. If we pretend for a second that I am a serious journalist, RCS would assume that their fall guy was speaking to the press while being framed. Who knows how things like this go sideways? During those days in Milan, I slept in the bathroom at the hotel because I’ve seen Jason Bourne movies and have a tendency to overdramatise. I grew a beard and kept my cycling pump under the pillow. While I was writing the piece, Rouleur’s lawyers were discussing the possible outcome of printing the story. The scandal was growing every day and then something happened that shut it down for Rouleur’s part. One morning, Michele texted from his wife’s phone:
“Don’t print. If you care about me.”
I packed my suitcase and flew home. Also. The bathroom floor was made of marble. It was just impossible to get any sleep.
“RCS didn’t talk. The media didn’t talk. Nobody, it seemed, investigated it. Am I the only one who wants to know the truth? So little by little I began to forget about the whole thing. I didn’t have my dream job, so what? Life goes on. Finally, when I had the opportunity to go to the trial, I did it. I went there and told the judge to ask me anything. I actually asked him: what is it you think I did? From then on, my lawyer informed me of the case. It was a long process. They changed the judge three times and every time th-”
“They changed the judge?”
They changed the judge three times.
“But I was sure something bad would happen. All the big companies in Italy, the banks and finances, are around or linked with RCS. But I had to let it go. I had to begin living a new life.”
“Today you have a normal job.”
“Would you like to return to cycling?”