In 2002, a team which was technically insolvent somehow won the Giro D'Italia. In the second of his exclusive blog posts on cycling’s vanishing teams, Herbie Sykes recalls Paolo Savoldelli’s Index-Alexia cycling team.
For Piercarlo Pedruzzi, it had been a rollercoaster ride. He was a smart, ambitious publicist from Bergamo, and he’d excelled in the employ of the Agnelli brothers. They’d a reputation for straight talk and hard work, and in that sense they were archetypal Bergamaschi. So, too, was the city’s favourite sporting son. Felice Gimondi had won three pink jerseys, one yellow one and one rainbow. He’d captured the imagination of the Bergamasco public, and had catapulted cycling onto the front pages. Gimondi had been a yeoman cyclist, and his appetite for hard graft made him the perfect metaphor for the place that had formed him. Baldassare and Paolo Agnelli had been weaned on his legend, and they too had a predilection for long hours at the coalface.
The Agnellis were in the aluminium business, and business was booming. Thus, when Pedruzzi had suggested cycling, they hadn’t needed a great deal of persuading. Sponsoring teams bestowed prestige as well as brand awareness, and so Cantina Tollo had become Cantina Tollo-Alexia. That had offset some of the tax liability without breaking the bank, and Gianpaolo Mondini had won them a stage at the 1999 Tour de France. Pedruzzi was convinced that he ought to have a team of his own, and the Agnellis had agreed to bankroll it. Leo Levati been co-opted to take care of the admin’ stuff, and Pino Petito had come aboard as DS. The Gios brothers had agreed to supply the bikes, and that had got them up, if not yet quite running.
The problem had been that money talked in cycling, and without a second sponsor Pedruzzi hadn’t had any. He’d hoped to offset that by that signing Nicola Minali, because Minali had been a terrific sprinter. He’d landed a dozen grand tour stages, including one on the Champs Elysée in ‘97. Minali, however, had always had a big, ugly, existential problem as a cyclist. That problem was called Mario Cipollini, and it – he – had cast an extremely long shadow. In common with the rest of Italy’s velocisti, Minali had been compelled to ride in it, and so in relative terms he was anonymous. What’s more he’d been the wrong side of 30 when he’d signed, his best days behind him. One way or another Alexia hadn’t been able to buy a win - literally or figuratively - that Spring, because cycling was a market and they’d got what they’d paid for. When the Giro had come around they’d been left kicking their heels, and the pasting they’d taken across the border at the Tour of Slovenia had been just plain humiliating. It had done nothing whatsoever for brand awareness, and so for Pedruzzi, for Levati and for the Agnelli brothers, it was time to put up or shut up.
Ivan “The Cheetah” Quaranta was a blue-eyed, chisel-jawed sprinter from Crema, the porticoed jewel an hour or so east of Milan. He’d been a junior World Champion on the track, but his had been a career in two parts. He’d turned professional at 21, with Gigi Stanga’s Polti. He hadn’t been ready, however, and in the age of the sprint train he’d been left pretty much to his own devices. In Giovanni Lombardi, Stanga had a reliable, fully formed sprinter, and so for two years Quaranta had found himself scratching around on European cycling’s undercard. He’d fetched up in the below stairs of KRKA, a small Slovenian outfit, but then Stefano Giuliani had offered him a leg-up and a way out.
Index-Alexia Allumino riders: Daniele Righi, Bo Hamburger and road caption Paolo Lanfranchi.
Giuliani had been good enough to win a couple of Giro sprints himself, and now he was running Mobilvetta. He hadn't the budget for a proven winner, but he'd a hunch that a slimmed-down, motivated Quaranta might just do the trick. That had been very perspicacious, because between them they'd caused a sensation at the 1999 Giro. He’d won the opening stage – and with it the maglia rosa – and had outgunned Cipo’ once more in Marco Pantani’s Cesenatico. Super Mario hadn’t much appreciated that (he never was much of a loser), and nor the fact that Ivan the Terrible had hogged the points jersey for two weeks.
Cipo’ hadn’t liked it, but it transpired that Quaranta was no flash-in-the-pan. He’d repeat the trick the following year, and in breaching fortress Cipollini make himself a big star. He was charismatic, male model handsome, and very, very fast.
Quaranta wasn’t easily managed, however, and like Cipo’ he had a habit of climbing off when the Giro reached the mountains. He liked fair weather and flat tracks, and there was enough wrong with him to deter the big boys from investing. Pedruzzi, a second division manager who still didn’t have the budget for a GC contender, decided to take a punt. He figured that Cipollini wasn’t getting any younger, and with a fair wind Quaranta’s presence might attract that elusive second sponsor. So it did and so it was. Euro Target threw their lot in for the Giro, and the popular former maglia ciclamino Giovanni Fidanza came aboard as DS. Alexia lost Pascal Hervè to a doping infraction (same old, same old… ) but Quaranta galloped home in Nettuno and in Parma. He didn’t make it back to Milan, but at least the Agnellis had their moneys’ worth.
Quaranta was good, then, but still essentially a one-trick-pony. He couldn’t deliver Division 1 status, and without it there’d be no Paris-Roubaix, no Tour de France and few if any Flemish classics. For those you needed points, and above all you needed a big name. Cycling business was show business, and without a headline act Alexia were largely invisible outside the Bel Paese.
For another son of Bergamo, the Giri of 2000 and 2001 had been catastrophic. Paolo Savoldelli had been runner-up in ’99, and he’d begun the 2000 edition with genuine maglia rosa ambitions. He’d prepared by winning Romandy, and Saeco had assembled a powerful team to support him. Much the best time trialist of the GC contenders, he’d been within a second of pink at the prologue, but on the opening road stage he’d been brought off by a stray bottle. He’d fallen hard onto his back, but he’d persuaded himself to carry on. He’d done three weeks in all kinds of agony, but worse was to follow. For eighteen months he’d been on a Tour of Italy’s chiropractors, but nothing had worked. The back pain had become intolerable, that had compromised his training, and one way or another he'd become a shadow of the rider who’d won the queen stage in ’99.
Savoldelli had no results to speak of, and word was out that he was washed-up. US Postal pulled out at the last minute, and with Lampre vacillating, Saeco offered a renewal of sorts. It amounted to a massive pay-cut, and a job as a gregario for the Giro winner Gilberto Simoni. Savoldelli, though, had no time for team owner Claudio Corti. He didn’t like him, he certainly didn’t appreciate what he viewed as his sharp practices, and he wasn’t much minded to fetch bottles for Simoni. He was only 28, and if he accepted Saeco’s offer the inference was that he was done as a GC rider. He was between a rock and a hard place, and he’d no obvious escape route.
In extremis, Savoldelli started visiting a smart osteopath in Parma. Finally and blessedly, the back started to improve, but he was still without a team for 2002. At the eleventh hour he took a call from Giovanni Fidanza of Alexia. He was a Bergamasco that Savoldelli felt he could trust, a man he liked and respected. Financially the offer was almost pitiable, but then Savo’s career was at ground zero. Besides, beggars can’t be choosers, and at least with Alexia he’d be guaranteed outright leadership at the Giro. Where Corti had hoovered up race organizers’ “expenses” by sending him to piss-pot stage races here, there and everywhere, Fidanza assured him that his only responsibility was to be good for the Giro. It was a salary (of sorts) and a shop window, and he told Fidanza he’d think it over.
Pedruzzi, too, had a lot riding on the outcome. With Alexia having confirmed, he was negotiating with two putative sponsors for 2002. He’d assured them that Savoldelli, Il Falco, was effectively a done deal, and that the new intake of support riders would be much better than in previous seasons. He was talking to the veteran Bergamaschi Paolo Lanfranchi and Mario Manzoni, Giro stage winners both, and to the Dane Bo Hamburger. Index, a local start-up providing internet ticketing facilities, were quick to sign up. The company was run by one Gabriele Caliandro, and it’s fair to say it (and he) would develop something of a reputation. Caliandro offered web-based ticketing services, online payment facilities and suchlike. It seems thousands of computer-illiterate Italian businesses subscribed, though quite what they thought they were subscribing to was highly subjective. The court cases would rumble on for years, but for now the Index branding appeared on the jersey and the artisan Ciöcc agreed to supply Coppi-branded bikes.
The remains of the Index Alexia team escort Paolo Savoldelli in the Maglia Rosa into Milan.
The proposed title sponsor was proving a tougher nut to crack. They were circumspect, but without their money Pedruzzi couldn’t afford Savoldelli. Without Savoldelli they wouldn’t commit their money, so it amounted to the dichotomy which had plagued cycling teams for decades. Pedruzzi had promised them UCI Division 1 status, but the registration was contingent upon his providing a bank guarantee. In the event he did just that, though quite how is unclear. What we do know is that another sponsor, “Blue Merchandising”, was added to the jersey. It sat under those of Index and Alexia, but seemingly there was no such entity. "Blue Merchandising" didn’t exist on any company register, and still today nobody has any idea what – or who – it was. Ostensibly at least, that suggests some extremely creative accountancy, but the broad and the short of it is that it was a shill. It was concocted to scam the UCI into issuing the licence, and it worked. We don't know who did it, but we do know that Levati, Pedruzzi's partner, claims to have been left seriously out of pocket.
Whatever; Pedruzzi had Index and Alexia, and now he had Savoldelli under contract. He didn’t have the money to pay his wages, but he told himself that would sort itself out when he got the big sponsorship deal over the line. The company claimed they just needed to sort out the internal nuts and bolts, and that, too, was a standard cycling trope. Put simply, the early season races mattered not a jot to anyone. The Giro was the only show in town, which of course explains why so many sponsorship deals get done in the days immediately preceding it. Pedruzzi was committed, however, and he’d committed Savoldelli, a team of racing cyclists and the Agnelli brothers.
It started to unravel at the opening training camp. The contracts stipulated that the riders would be given three bikes apiece, but neo-pro Luca Barattero was disturbed to discover that there were only two. Pedruzzi made light of it, but then in February the wages took the form of post-dated cheques. Pedruzzi had neither the sponsor nor the cash, but as ever in these (cycling) situations, the riders were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. Savoldelli, his back issues behind him now, threatened to down tools altogether at the Giro del Trentino. That was just so much hot air, though, and Pedruzzi knew it. Savoldelli couldn’t afford to absent himself from the Giro, because if he did he’d be finished as a top level racing cyclist. Regardless, by the time they flew to Holland for the partenza, the trajectory of the team had been set. Pedruzzi had rolled the dice, everyone had lost, and it was a case of like it or lump it.
What happened next is legion. Immediately the Giro caravan arrived back in Italy, two of its riders were arrested (one in absentia - he hadn’t travelled because he’d been tipped off) for offences related to trafficking. Then Stefano Garzelli, the 2000 winner and actual maglia rosa, was found to have been positive during stage two. Alvaro Crespi, the Mapei DS, reneged on a gentleman’s agreement to send him home pending the counter-analysis, and instead instructed his charges to let a race-threatening fuga bidone develop. That particularly catastrophe was averted thanks to an intervention by venerable old Giorgio Albani. He’d ridden with Coppi and Bartali, he was universally liked and respected within the cycling community, and he provided an interface between the riders and the race organizers. Garzelli left the race shortly after, and was followed swiftly by Simoni. He famously claimed that his first positive was the fault of his dentist, the second of a South American cough sweet manufacturer. Next, Francesco Casagrande was expelled for forcing Freddy Garcia off the road and into hospital, and then the fresh-faced maglia rosa Cadel Evans recalled the golden age by losing 17 minutes in two apocalyptic Dolomite hours.
As Evans capsized Savoldelli, utterly bereft of any meaningful help from his “team”, took matters into his own hands. He rode the GC group off his wheel and rode Index-Alexia, the absolute riff-raff of a truly mind-bending Giro, into the maglia rosa. During the RAI roundup show, Processo alla Tappa, he learned that he was to become a father, and he celebrated by extending his lead in the time trial the following afternoon. Twenty-four hours later he stood before a TV audience of millions because he, the unpaid leader of a bankrupt team, had somehow won the Giro d’Italia. You couldn’t make it up. Literally you couldn’t.
The final podium of the 85th edition of the Giro D'Italia. 1st Paolo Savoldelli (Index - Alexia Alluminio), 2nd Tyler Hamilton (CSC ProTeam - Tiscali), 3rd Pietro Caucchioli (Alessio - Bianchi). Full results are available on procyclingstats.com
Though most of the riders were paid in the fullness of time, the team folded at the year’s end. It was hard to find people willing to invest in cycling, because the Italian public was convinced – quite rightly it turns out – that the whole thing was lousy with doping. Savoldelli would famously win the brilliant Giro of 2005, while Fidanza moved on to T-Mobile and them to Astana. Quaranta’s career fizzled out, and so did those of the lesser lights and neo-pros. Piercarlo Pedruzzi vanished from cycling, and died recently aged 64.
We’ll never know what the mystery sponsor-non sponsor made of it all, and nor the true cost in lost publicity of their not having invested. We know that solid, dependable, matter-of-fact Alexia remains a bulwark of the Bergamasco business community, and that Index went bust amidst a pandemic of recrimination and litigation. The irony is that cycling history doesn’t distinguish.
In his brilliance, Savoldelli hardwired both into cycling fans’ collective consciousness. Professional cycling exists to render brand names indelible, and he was an extremely good professional cyclist. Riders and races come and go but the sponsors, for all they cease trading (or, in the case of “Blue Merchandising” never start), never disappear. That’s the unique selling point of cycling, but also its greatest paradox. They're gone but, for better or for worse, not forgotten.
Funny old game…
This signed postcard celebrates Paolo Savoldelli winning the 85th edition of the Giro D'Italia in 2002.
If you have enjoyed reading Herbie Sykes' latest blog for us, we have a selection of previously published stories for you to enjoy.