This was supposed to be a very different story. After following Neri Sottoli, formerly Vini Fantini, for a year, this was supposed to be about a small team putting the pieces back together after an annus horribilis.
They’d all been dragged through the mud, seen their hard work undone and had to watch helplessly while what little financial backing they had withered away overnight. They’d almost lost everything because of the parochial demands of a myopic sponsor and the selfish actions of two riders, but they’d started again, and looked the stronger for it. This was one story, I thought, where I’d get to write a happy ending.
And then another selfish rider decided he’d like to try some EPO.
Back in February 2014, things looked rather more hopeful. Sitting in a closed hotel in Tuscany that the team was using as a training base, Matteo Rabottini seemed relaxed, even though at that point, the future was far from certain. In the wake of the doping scandals involving Danilo Di Luca and Mauro Santambrogio at the 2013 Giro d’Italia, they still needed to find a sponsor.
“Now everything is okay, everything’s calm. We’ve begun again, after a season that didn’t go the way any of us wanted. But it’s important to start over.
“My objective remains the same: to do well at the Giro. That’s the race that anointed me, that gave me visibility, brought me to everyone’s attention. That is always my primary objective, but I won’t hide the fact that this season I want to be stronger, because in respect to other years I’m in better condition. I want to try do well.
“I’ve been with Luca [Scinto] for four years now so the relationship is good. One of friendship and respect. This is a team where you feel well, that’s why I wanted to stay. It helps because with a team like this, you always arrive at your important goals feeling tranquil.
“Absolutely, I see a change compared to the past. Even if I’ve only been racing at this level for a few years, these days you can see cycling is changing and getting better.”
Rabottini looked like an average guy in his twenties, hanging out in the hallway talking to colleagues the way you might make small talk with someone at the office, and he was ready to sit down and talk the moment he was asked. He looked happy, in spite of everything around him. The lifeless hotel had few creature comforts and with the weather outside, the prospect of winter training can’t have been an inviting one.
His fellow Abruzzese, the man who’d fired the imagination of kids like himself less than a decade ago, had thrown everyone under the bus back in May. He was with a squad that was in grave financial peril, facing the kind of future that would have given even the most optimistic person pause for thought, but he was determined, confident. He was still in the game, a 26-year-old with plenty of potential, the underdog who’d won the Mountains Classification in the 2012 Giro d’Italia, leaving an indelible impression on the race that year with a stunning victory on Stage 15.
In part, it was that breakaway win that had made me want to do the story. Watching that day, it was easy to be swept up in the madness of it; attacking in the opening kilometres, shaking off his co-conspirators on the slopes of the Valico di Valcava before spending the second half of the day scrambling to keep ahead of the chasing pack.
The impossible brashness of it, the infectious energy of Scinto urging him on out of the team car window, the crash that so easily could have ended it all, the gruppetto of seasoned champions behind, in vicious pursuit of the little-known rider that Italian television predicted would be slain as a “sacrificial victim” of the final attack.
The bitter conditions on the final ascent to Pian dei Resinelli, the commentator screaming “Forza Rabottini, Forza Rabottini”, willing him to resist the ultimate assault from Joaquim Rodriguez.
All looked lost in that final kilometre – surely the longest of his life – until the final turn, 60-odd metres from the finish, when he swung out from behind the Spaniard’s wheel and with every last ounce of energy, sprinted to one of the most memorable victories in recent Giro history.
It was the kind of day that we – fans, journalists, race organisers – dream of: the sort that you’d show to someone if you wanted to convince them of the sport’s allure. And the type of win that can catapult a rider to stardom. But sadly, that cold, wet afternoon in the mountains of Lombardy has turned out to be the apex, rather than the base, of the Italian’s career.
For all that’s happened since then, I still believe Rabottini meant what he said that day. The young Italian who used to be a footballer and who’d turned to cycling late in his teens seemed credible, not only because his results hadn’t been great but – and I admit this is horribly subjective – because he carried himself with the demeanour of a hard worker who took full responsibility for his form and was labouring to be better.
This wasn’t a star with great pretensions. There were no airs about anyone in the team: all workers, all open. If the likes of Sky, Astana and BMC are the sport’s upper-class, then Yellow Fluo, as it was then temporarily known, was distinctly proletarian. Everyone was there to do a job. It’s also worth mentioning that during the time we spent at the hotel with the team, there were no closed doors, no media handlers and no objections to 228’s prying lens in the doctor’s room, even during examinations.
Perhaps the sport’s caustic financial pressures simply got the better of him. Maybe he feared for his job, or thought that by trying to improve his performances he was only doing right by the people who paid his wages.
Seen through the distorting lens of cycling’s biggest events, the Tour de France in particular, the sport looks in rude health. But as anyone who works in it will tell you, away from the Champs-Élysées, the reality is rather more low rent. It continues to haemorrhage sponsors, storied races fall to the wayside year after year, the new ones that replace them are in far-flung corners of the world with no cycling culture and of no interest to fans, and teams suffer. For Pro Continental teams, the Grand Tours and the local backers they attract are lifeblood. Without them, it’s almost certain death.
Ironically, Danilo Di Luca was meant to be the tourniquet needed to prevent such exsanguination at Vini Fantini, because for all his problems, he brought money, too.
The 2007 Giro winner is a close friend of Valentino Sciotti, the owner of the Vini Fantini winery, who at the time was sponsoring the team that Angelo Citracca and Scinto had built up from very humble beginnings on the regional circuit. The pair was very publicly opposed to having Di Luca ride for them, but on the eve of the 2013 Giro it was announced that he’d signed on, the team having been left with no choice by the title patron who’d threatened to pull the plug unless he got his way.
It wasn’t the first time Sciotti had bailed out the serial doper’s career, either. A proud native of Abruzzo like Di Luca, he wasn’t shy when it came to helping the region’s first real sporting celebrity. In 2008, he’d covered a shortfall at LPR Brakes for his salary. When Lampre became Lampre-Farnese Vini in 2010, it was on the condition that Di Luca got a contract – only for that to backfire on the generous benefactor when his friend received a ban for testing positive for CERA.
Sciotti invested again when Di Luca was taken on board by Acqua & Sapone – the Barbarossa family who own the beauty chain are Abruzzese too – only to see the team shunned by race organisers RCS for a Giro invite, basically because “The Killer” was, at that point, lethal to the touch. It’s amazing that Sciotti’s loyalty has been so unwavering over the years, and that given his litany of previous offences, the man who former Giro director Angelo Zomegnan accused of punching the race in the stomach back in 2007 was still allowed to take a swing and bloody some noses in 2013.
This is cycling. Well-funded, stable teams are the exception rather than the rule and unfortunately most live and die on the whim of narrow-minded benefactors more interested in making a good impression – la bella figura – in their regional fiefdoms than any lasting sporting achievement.
Citracca and Scinto can be forgiven for bowing to Sciotti’s demands, even if they must have seen what was coming. In the last 12 months we’ve seen Argos, Euskaltel, RadioShack and Vacansoleil pull out and Cannondale merge with Garmin – and that’s just at the highest level. Vini Fantini was operating on a tiny budget comparatively, and couldn’t risk losing its most important backer at a time when Italian cycling and the country’s economy is in tatters.
Signing a repeat offender is wrong, but it’s not a decision they should have been allowed to make. The team’s management is at fault for acquiescing in Di Luca’s return, but the UCI is far more culpable for allowing such a choice to be possible. If punishments were stricter, or even there was some regulation regarding how much influence a financial backer could have, they’d never have been put in that position in the first place.
Santambrogio’s case is slightly different. Scinto admits that he was stupid – his word – for taking him on, but he’d been caught up in the idea of securing the kind of talent he could normally never afford. The Italian climber had made a solid career as a gregario during his two years at BMC before improving suddenly – a little too suddenly, perhaps – in 2012.
He’d finished sixth at the Clásica de San Sebastián and fourth at the Giro di Lombardia. More impressive than the result in that final monument of the season, however, is the fact that he, a worker, came within a hair’s breadth of the podium after spending most of the race riding for the team’s main riders, Philippe Gilbert and Alessandro Ballan, and was only left to his own devices once they’d crashed out. But for some reason – did BMC suspect something was up? – his contract wasn’t renewed. Vini Fantini were getting a World Tour rider at a knock down price, the kind of talent who could excel at the Giro and make sure sponsors got plenty of bang for their buck at the only race that really matters. It looked too good to be true.
When I started talking to Scinto and Citracca at the end of 2013, doping was a secondary issue in my mind, even if it was the one that had grabbed all the headlines. The actions of Di Luca and Santambrogio had cast Vini Fantini into the spotlight and opened those in charge up to all kinds of accusations, but it had always seemed like a symptom of a deeper malaise. The original sickness, for me at least, was always financial insecurity. That was the article I’d wanted to write; an account of the myriad difficulties facing small teams in a sport where even the biggest outfits struggle to balance the books.
Now, the team finds itself in a very different position. Another doping scandal threatens to damage reputations permanently, even as, perversely, their 2014 Coppa Italia win earns them that crucial Giro wildcard. This latest digression won’t leave them teetering on the brink of existence, but it will do more to undermine their standing in the sport, and how supporters see them, more than 2013’s troubles ever did. Di Luca and Santambrogio were in, but not of, the team. Rabottini was one of their own. He’d been there since he turned pro. Excuses are harder to come by. Someone must have known, and if they didn’t, they should have.
In light of Rabottini’s positive, the interviews I’d collected over the course of 2014 are now largely irrelevant, or at the very least, open to too much conjecture to be worthy of printing, but one from the end of 2013, conducted in a restaurant near Verona, not far from the headquarters of the team’s major – but largely silent – backer, is worth consideration.
“You could say it was partly my fault, because I’m the captain of the ship,” said Scinto, over lunch that day in November. “It was a blow for everyone. The guys felt it on a personal level, fearing they might lose their jobs. It wasn’t easy. After the Giro, our season was finished. It was hard to keep going, in a desperate moment, I didn’t have the strength, the grinta, or the confidence to keep believing in something.
“I was unable to understand the truth. Someone could criticise from the outside and say, ‘I had to do this, I had to do that’, but what did I ‘have’ to do? You can’t understand everything that goes on. I did everything that was possible, but you can’t understand … the riders can also be actors, you know? I was a cyclist myself so I know. The ones who dope don’t always even realise what they’re doing: to them it seems normal, so they do it so calmly that it seems to everyone else that they’re not doing anything wrong.
“It was hard. It was hard to begin again. But I’ll repeat something that he [Citracca, across the table] said: There will never be two riders who force me to stop. And the press can’t make me stop just because I made a mistake. I’ll stop when I decide to stop, not when others decide or because of the faults of others.
“After the Giro, I really didn’t have any desire to go on. And with a character like me, who’s usually the spirit of the squad, the motivator in the group, when you let go of it everyone feels it right away. It was a horrible thing. Especially since we’d reached such a great level in just five years, and all it took was one day to ruin everything. Everyone was so angry. But after a while, I realised that there was still some good left, that I couldn’t keep focusing on the bad, that there were still cyclists in the team who were clean and who wanted to continue competing clean.
“When it happens to other people, OK, it happens. But when it happens in your own house… it’s tough. People have talked a lot about it. It’s easy to talk, it’s easy to write about it in the newspaper, but the reality…
“Let me tell you something. They sent me a rider, Di Luca, who I didn’t want. He came on a Friday [April 26, a week before the Giro start]. I didn’t meet him until Sunday. I only knew him in the sense that he’d raced when I raced. Then that Monday, he tested positive.
“The other rider, Santambrogio, was delivered to me in November  from BMC. They told me he was a good rider. No one told me there was a problem, maybe they didn’t notice a problem either, but he’d ridden strongly for them as well in the second half of the season, at San Sebastián, and he was fourth at Lombardia … he looked the same with us as he had with them.
“It’s not like they [doping control] caught Oscar Gatto, or a rider who’d been with me for four or five years, who I knew really well.
“One arrived on Friday and was positive on Monday, who, I repeat, I didn’t want, who was forced on me by the sponsor, and the other was a young Italian rider who’d raced for three years with a Pro Tour team, who they told me was just depressed, who wanted to race for himself, not to be a gregario, who I could build something around. They cancelled his contract and I only paid the minimum salary, convinced that I was getting a good rider with Pro Tour experience … And his biological passport was one of the best you’d find.
“And another thing. At the Giro, David Millar went to Michele Acquarone and said that Di Luca and Santambrogio were riding too strong and that it wasn’t possible. Millar is washed clean now, of course, but if it was easy for him to say these things, why nothing about Ryder Hesjedal? OK, they weren’t on the same team ten years ago when Hesjedal supposedly doped for the only time, but he won the Giro in 2012, and nothing beforehand. He never did anything until he won a Grand Tour. So if you think like that you could say he was the same as Santambrogio, dangerous, in that it isn’t normal for someone like him to be that strong.
“[At the Giro] they couldn’t decide if Santambrogio was really positive or not. There was a debate. The newspapers wrote it, but we didn’t know. Am I supposed to uncover it all? They, with all of the analysis, are struggling with ‘yes or no’, and I’m supposed to find out? We don’t have the tools. If the UCI had told me he was a risk, I’d have sent him home right away. There was never any communication. Look, we’re here now. The riders are all at home. I have to have trust. I need to trust them about what they do and don’t do.
“Now, we live in a world where if a rider does well … whoever does well is doped. Santambrogio began riding well. He was lean, he was training every day, always, even when it rained, or when he wasn’t feeling well. What should I think? Work still counts, doesn’t it? I saw him improve, he had the motivation to be a leader in a small team, I can’t immediately think about doping. You’d have to quit if you thought like that about everyone. It’s not like he won the Tour or the Giro.
“It’s not easy to always think the worst. Like you, if an editor didn’t publish an article because he published something from a friend of a friend – that exists, sure, but if you thought about it all the time, you’d quit journalism, no?”
If Luca Scinto rode as fast as he talked, he’d have been a multiple Giro winner. And in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I’m somewhat biased towards the team because I like the guy. Not only were he and Citracca disarmingly honest about their thoughts on doping, but the pair held back nothing when asked about money or sponsors or, when we caught up at this year’s Giro, about how poorly their riders were performing. So I take no pleasure in saying that after agreeing to break his silence on Rabottini, Scinto decided against speaking to me in time to make the deadline. I think the article, and the debate surrounding the team, is the weaker for it. Having invested so long in the story, I’d have been, if not sympathetic, at least considerate of what he had to say and any kind of explanation he wished to offer. Instead, there was only silence. Which in this case – given the fact he’s usually so vocal and had immediately denounced Di Luca as a “cretin” last year – is deafening.
A story that was supposed to be enthusiastic – God forbid I use the word positive again – ended up being more of the same misery. All of which is depressingly unsurprising. People can talk about the empty sentiment of “new cycling” as much as they want, but events like this continue to prove what we all know: ultimately it’s results, and not Corinthian values, that drive all professional sports. As long as cheating offers even the slimmest hope of an edge, there will always be people desperate enough to risk it.
For all the preaching, the moral outrage and Puritanism, and in spite of the apologists and revisionists, and those who just choose to plain deny that there is or ever was a problem, we’re still stuck in the same spot. Doping exists, has existed a long time and will probably always exist. Lance Armstrong’s very public mortification was billed the crest of a new wave of respectability, but now that the swell has broken and the waters receded, we’re left with different flotsam, and the same wretched stench. So much for the new age of innocence.
As Scinto put it, like everything else it just evolves. “You lot [journalists] used to use pens and paper,” he joked in the car during one interview, “and then typewriters, and now computers. Doping is the same.”
All the social media evangelism in the world won’t change that. It’s easy to judge someone like Rabottini from the comfort of a couch and from the cosiness of a middle-class lifestyle with the education and the job and the security that comes with it, but the truth is that, back to the wall, many of us would do everything – anything – to hold on, to not fail, to not lose it all.
Cycling was his job. He didn’t have a long career or a permanent contract he could look forward to. He – like the majority of professional athletes who aren’t on big money – walked a tightrope strung out over an abyss of failure. And like many before him – and doubtless more to come – he went looking for a safety net, risking everything on an illicit gambit that promised professional security as the payout. That makes him a terrible sportsman and a quintessential professional, and that’s the dichotomy we’re probably doomed to struggle with for eternity.
I wanted this story to be different, even though by nature I’m not especially hopeful about cycling’s chances – any sport’s chances – of ever being truly clean. But I hoped to be proved wrong. I still do. Because to paraphrase the late Italian intellectual Pier Paolo Pasolini: I might be an unbeliever, but I’m still nostalgic about believing.
Yellow Fluo by Colin O’Brien with photos by 228 originally appeared in issue 51 of 1 and is nominated for the Sport Media Pearl Awards