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86th Giro d'Italia: Yaroslav Popovych Press Conference
By Fabio
Date: 5/28/2003
86th Giro d'Italia: Yaroslav Popovych Press Conference

Tuesday was rest day at the 86th Giro díItalia. Time for riders to take it a bit easier, make their plans for the ultimate stages, and check their bikes and legs on the flat roads and gentle hills of Oltrepů Pavese in the outskirts of Salice Terme, the place where tomorrowís stage is set to start (map). Time for the UCI vampires to show up at the rider hotels and test 33 athletes belonging to 5 different teams (all of them gave negative, and also the fact such things didnít hit the headlines any longer is a very good sign). And, whatís most important, time for the "Daily Peloton" to undergo the most pleasant of all tortures: wandering through the Pavia and Oltrepů Pavese areas, going for more and more news and images of the Tour of Italy main protagonists.

Indeed our site attended two press conferences, given in the early afternoon (later many stars of the Giro peloton moved to the square in front of Saliceís thermal baths in order to take part in a RAI 3 special program dedicated to the race) in two different hotels. And not "minor" conferences at all: the first one was featuring Gilberto Simoni, the other had nobody else than Yaroslav Popovych as main star. The Daily Peloton is honoured to report on thoughts and words from two thirds of the current (and probably Milanís) overall podium. And is honoured to show you a pic of Gilberto Simoni on the Pavia podium, autographed by the Giro díItalia overall leader on Tuesday afternoon.

Yaroslav Popovych's Press Conference (Tuesday, May 27th 2003)

Besides Gilberto Simoni, another Giro díItalia protagonist held a press conference on Tuesday, just a few kilometres north, on the other side of the Po river. The number of journalists in the hotel at Tre Re di Cava Manara was not the same, and the atmosphere was a little more "familiar", without the cameras reserved to the pink jersey wearer. But nevertheless the interest and excitement were the same.

Indeed the rider Iím referring to is another big protagonist of the 2003 Giro (along with Simoni, Garzelli and Petacchi): Yaroslav Popovych. The man that could snatch a podium spot in Milan within a few days, and even take the place of Gilberto Simoni at the top of the podium next year according to Landbouwkredietís enthusiastic team manager Olivano Locatelli. And the pupil of legendary bike manufacturer Ernesto Colnago, who said Popovych is an extraordinary rider and person, a man who is easy to be fond of.

And after watching the 23-year-old Ukrainian answer questions on the most different subjects, one canít help but agree with Mr. Colnago. Popovych smiled all the time and looked like a man thankful for all the good things he has been able to accomplish thus far, but at the same time well-determined to keep going for more and more achievements. And even if heís now enjoying his perhaps unexpected popularity, he sounded like he was at ease, and with clear ideas in his mind.

Below are extracts from the press conference with "Popo" (by his own admission, thatís the way Yaroslav is nicknamed), focused on several aspects.

Popovych and the 2003 Giro: The LBK-Colnago team leader is currently third overall, some 4 minutes down to Simoni, and about 02í30" behind Garzelli. Keeping his third place would definitely be an excellent result for the rider from western Ukraine, but why not think big? Thatís what the journalist who asked him how he could beat Simoni had probably in mind. Popovych smiled and said that in his opinion the Saeco rider is a bit too strong for him now.

Garzelli is well ahead of him too, but Popovych is a combative rider and, even if says heís not worried, and satisfied with his performance thus far, the man promised that, should one of the riders ahead of him in the GC have a bad day, he would be there, trying to take any chance to improve his position. He does not know the route of Thursdayís stage into Ponte Chianale too well, but will definitely use a special bike for the next two mountain legs, a lighter one produced by Colnago. And besides that special bike, Yaroslav will have to resort to "grinta", a fundamental part of his racing attitude.

Popovych at Alpe di Pampeago: The same grinta, the same combative attitude he displayed this past Saturday, in the stage finishing up to Pampeago. In the San Pellegrino ascent "Popo" was struggling and visibly in trouble. The reason?? No, he wasnít playing poker the "Armstrong at TdF 2001" way. Popovych simply wasnít fit, he had fever since the previous night. "In a similar situation, many others would lose 15 minutes or so. Popovych attacked the pink jersey instead," said Olivano Locatelli, adding that "such things make it hard for me to label him".

Indeed whereas many expected him to lose time on the final slope, we saw the Ukrainian, immediately followed by Simoni, break away as the Alpe di Pampeago climb began. The 23-year-old could stay with the future stage winner for some time, then lost his wheels, but didnít crack at all, as he finished 5th in the stage, only 49 secs down to the leader. Popovych himself admitted that he probably made a mistake in attacking and later trying to follow Simoniís wheels, and paid a price for that. But "the Giro is an excellent school," he said. And step by step, little mistake after little mistake, heís learning to become a great professional rider.

Popovych and his improvements: He certainly needs to improve again, both on the technical and physical sides of the matter. But he has gone a long way since he came to Italy a few years ago. "When Yaroslav got here he was riding for pleasure, he needed to improve a lot on the technical side. And thatís what he has actually done, since its first year as an amateur". Locatelli added that, "Last year he paid the price for his category change, even though I donít believe thereís an excessive gap between the amateur and professional 'worlds.'" According to the successful team manger, who discovered Popoyvch, reigning World U23 ITT Champion Tomas Vaitkus and many other skilled cyclists, if a rider keeps thinking heíll find problems after turning a pro, problems will come; but that would a wrong way of thinking, and wouldnít take any rider too far.

Popovych and his view of cycling (both "Eastern" and "Western" versions): The Ukrainian reminded of his first races in Italy, when he came to the Giro della Valle díAosta (an important stage race in the Northwestern corner of the country, close to the French border, reved for young guns) and was amazed at the cold temperatures he found. "Who said cycling is easy here?" was one of the first thoughts of the upset youngster. But it seems he enjoyed racing in Italy after all, as he chose to settle there, and kept dominating the field in several Italian races in the next years. Popovych also earned praise from journalists when he admitted that, inspite of the huge efforts it requires, cycling mainly remains a pleasure to him. Cycling in Eastern and Western Europe is not the same thing though. When in his home country, he lacked everything, and even needed someone to pick him up and take him home when he had a flat tyre. In such conditions, itís not easy to find the right motivations and keep riding. But once into "Western cycling" things changed, with lots of stuff (equipment, bikes etc) easily at one's disposal, "and that makes you wanna ride," Popovych said.

Yaroslav feels comfortable in Italy, where he has found many friends, and while some time ago he thought of moving back to Ukraine, now staying in Italy is part of his plans, even though from time to time he gets back to his homeland to meet his family (and biggest fan, namely his father).

Popovych, doping and young riders: "I know this is a big problem affecting cycling, but I hope the worst may be over. Iím happy of Pantaniís comeback, even if Iíd also like new faces to burst into spotlight. Which young riders do I regard as main rivals? Well, Pellizotti and Scarponi first, and the French guy that raced with me in New Caledonia a couple years ago, whose name I do not remember now though".

PopovychÖthe "bad" guy?: Asked about his merits and faults. Yaroslav smiled and said, "Itís up to the others to talk about my eventual merits," further displaying his modesty. But he talked of his "bad side" as well: "I can be a bad guy. When you know me better, you can see that. Should anyone annoy me, Iíd get bad". Hard to believe, as Yaroslav is well-known as very good, lovely guy. And the fact that he was laughing while answering that question makes it harder for us to believe in a "bad version"of Yaroslav. Even though, when on the bike, he can certainly be "bad" to his rivals.

Either bad or not, he has always felt at ease inside the peloton. "And things didnít change recently," despite that heís getting more famous. "I talk to everyone, and everyone talks to me. The only difference from the past is that now, from time to time, someone comes and pays me compliments".

Popovych and the "greats" of the peloton: One of the images of Popovych that mostly impressed fans and and journalists in this Pantani-addict country going under the name of Italy, was the one of Yaroslav pipping "Il Pirata" to the line at the top of the much-feared Zoncolan, on the day of Pantaniís "historical" comeback. They were waiting for "The Pirate", they saw that young Ukrainian come around him and snatch fourth place from him.

And that was not the only time we saw Popovych neck-to-neck with the biggest names in the peloton. We are getting accustomed to seeing him up front beside the likes of Simoni, Garzelli, Casagrande. He raced with Lance Armstrong too. All names well-known by fans even when very, very few people into cycling could spell Popovychís name. Is it a source of big emotion to him?? And how was he feeling after he got across the Zoncolan top before the once undisputed King of the Mountains???

"Yes, I definitely felt emotional when riding beside those guys. But when I outsprinted Pantani, it wasnít because of who he was. I am just used to sprinting that way, and I would have done the same with anyone else," was Popovychís reply.

Popovych and his best wins: "The victory at the 2001 World Championships has been the most important so far in my career. But all of my victories have been nice to me. And now I hope I may add a Giro stage to my palmares."

Popovych and football: With the UEFA Champions League all-Italian final (Juventus Turin vs. AC Milan) coming on Wednesday, Italian journalists couldnít help but questioning Popovych on his football likes and dislikes: "Iím not a big football fan," he admitted, "but I root for AC Milan, the team (fellow Ukrainian) Andriy Shevchenko plays for".

Popovych and the future: After watching his great rides in the 2003 Giro, many were reminded of Popoís extraordinary 2001, and the way he was compared to Eddy Merckx, and kept asking how far he could go. Somebody also considered him as the man that could stop Lance Armstrongís winning streak at the TdF.

Maybe it is a bit too early for such bold statements, and only time will tell. But both Locatelli, whose optimism concerning the 2004 Giro we mentioned in the early part of this story, and Ernesto Colnago are perfectly aware of Yaroslavís potential and his perspectives. "I know we have got a huge talent in our team," Colnago said. "We just have to wait, and thatís what weíll patiently do. Heís getting higher and higher in the meantime. Some say itís a pity that Yaroslav is not Italian, but he lives in Italy, feels comfortable here, and speaks a fluent Italian, Italian fans loved many champions of the past who didnít speak Italian, so why shouldnít they love him too?"

And Popovych replied to Colnagoís statements with words that would make his team bosses happy, and things clear about the possibility of him moving from Landbouwkrediet-Colnago to another squad: "I do want to continue this way. I want to keep riding, and stay in an environment like this, which I like".

Yaroslav Popovych and LBK-Colnago's Team Manager Marco Saligari

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