Gilberto Simoni at the pre-race pressconference
Photo by Todd Kohli
I learned a lot about Gilberto Simoni this weekend. From his brief appearance at the pre-race press conference on Friday to my twenty-minute conversation with him on Sunday, I felt at times like I was taking a crash course on the two-time Giro d'Italia champion. Like many English-language cycling journalists, I thought that some of Simoni's comments over the last year have seemed a bit too full of bravado. I was curious to see the Italian myself, to talk to him (albeit through a translator) and look into his eyes to size up what kind of person he was. I thought the press conference would provide a good opportunity to ask him a few questions. Unfortunately, there was some confusion at the press conference, and he took off before I had a chance to come up and ask him questions one-on-one. His general comments were interesting, and his presentation of an autographed Pink Jersey to San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown was fun, but I wasn't at all satisfied that I knew any more about the man than before the press conference.
The next day I had the incredible good luck to run into Lorenza Cerbini, a journalist with the Italian American publication America Oggi, at the San Rafael Cycling Classic. I had met Lorenza the previous year in San Francisco while covering the big race. We were chatting, and she graciously agreed to join me and serve as translator if I was able to get an interview with Simoni sometime the next day. That evening I also had the good fortune to meet Greg St. Johns, the director of an upcoming documentary on Simoni. Greg and his producer Rusty Elder followed Simoni and his Saeco squad around Italy for the entire Giro this year as they won the Pink Jersey. Greg and Rusty had some fascinating stories about what they saw with their full access to the Saeco squad (and if you want to see and hear these stories for yourselves, well, buy the DVD when it comes out later this year). They painted a picture of Simoni as just a really nice guy, a family man and a straight shooter who answers questions honestly and openly. And this, it seems, is the source of some of the misunderstandings we English-speaking journalists have developed about the stylish Italian: his honest answers to specific questions have lost some of their meaning in translation, and lost more meaning when read outside their original context. I now wanted more than ever to get that interview with Simoni the next day.
Ready to ride! Simoni on the startline
Photo by Jaime Nichols
During the T-Mobile International presented by BMC Software, Simoni and his Saeco boys were very active. Simoni eventually finished in the small peloton, coming across in 36th place at 1' 04" behind winner Chris Horner (Saturn). I went to the post-race press conference, which only included the podium finishers, and then went out to the lobby of the race hotel. I met up with Lorenza, and after a flurry of phone calls, there was Simoni, walking across the lobby to shake my hand. He was a full head shorter than me, and was wearing an outfit that Crazy Jane just loved (see her upcoming report for some pictures of that outfit). We sat in a quiet corner, and proceeded to talk about the race, American cycling, and his thoughts on Giro win number two.
DP: What did you think about the race today? How did it unfold for your team, and how did you feel about your result?
Simoni: It's quite difficult to say, because we were just four people, and four people cannot control the race. We tried to save energy, but we were the leaders of the race at certain points, especially at the end. The break was twenty riders, so it was quite difficult. That means we had to work a lot at the back. For me, it was a really great experience, because the crowd I saw was so fantastic all around the course. If you compare it with the races we usually do in Europe, it's quite different. First, because it's really in the middle of a town, and a town that is quite big, and all the course is spread all around, and you can find people in every corner and bend of the course. I also really think that the wind created a problem for the race. The wind was really strong, so the first one who attacked had to pay for this kind of effort.
Gibo on the Fillmore Climb
Photo by Jaime Nichols
I want to define the climb at Fillmore as a wall. [laughing] It's not normal, something like that, and what brings you help at the end of the climb is the people. It's really fantastic. I really think that the crowd at Fillmore makes a difference. If there is no crowd? No, you turn back, you turn away because it's not possible. It's at that kind of moment when you can compare your situation [with the crowd noise] to a stadium during a soccer match.
DP: There are stairs on the sidewalk of that climb. It's kind of a joke.
Simoni: At the beginning of the race a lot of riders were not able to find the right gear, to change properly. At a certain point there was a threat, "what can I do if I stop here? I cannot start again. And what happens then?"
DP: Were you aware of your popularity with the fans in the U.S.?
Simoni: I think that this race is really fantastic, and I would like to come here in the future and say, "okay, that's a race that I really want to win," because I honestly think it's one of the best races I've ridden this year, and also the crowd was really very nice. It's fantastic.
DP: What do you think of the American racers, and of the level of competition that you found here?
Simoni: The winner [Chris Horner] and Mark McCormack, the U.S.A. Champion, they are really really strong riders. They did a very strong job today. I want to repeat again, that the wind made the racing a little negative, because when you attack and you find a strong wind in your face, you can only do so much.
I was quite astonished, because at the end of the race there was really a huge bunch of riders, and for this kind of race it is quite unusual. That means there is a very nice quality of cycling and riders here in the United States, and also that cycling here in the United States is growing quickly and the quality is really very good.
Breaking it down for the press...
Photo by Todd Kohli
DP: Are you going to be staying in North America to ride or train some more? [Note: this was his last race of the year, and he will not be participating in the World Championships in Hamilton].
Simoni: I would really like to spend around fifteen days here or three weeks, but the goal should be learning good English [laughs].
DP: I was told that there is a documentary being made by an American film crew about your Giro victory this year.
Simoni: Yes, this is true. The movie is not finished yet. They want to present the movie at the big show in Las Vegas [Interbike], but they are not sure yet if it will be finished in time. But I saw a trailer, and I really think it's quite good. Interesting, and very very professional. I think they had a lot of fun in Italy, because they arrived in Italy, they stayed with us all the time for the Giro, and then I won the Giro. So they really felt like part of the Giro. I really think they had a lot of fun.
DP: Now that you've had time to reflect on it, how would you compare your Giro victory in 2003 to your victory in 2001?
Simoni: [Shaking head and laughing] That is a very hard question. [Pauses] The first time that you win the Giro, it's like when you actually realize a dream, the dream from when you were a boy and it's the dream of your life, and you realize it. The second time is totally different, because you have a lot more responsibility on your shoulders. But when you are on the last stage and the last day, the satisfaction is twice as big.
I concluded the interview and thanked him, and he asked Lorenza for the English words, before saying, "You're welcome." I would have liked to talk to him longer, but he had just ridden an incredibly exhausting race; also, Lorenza was about to miss her ride and had to take off. All in all, I had to agree with the estimation of Greg and Rusty: Gilberto Simoni is just a really nice, friendly, honest man. Sure, he's confident, but he's not a prima donna by any means. In defeat, he had nothing but praise for the race and the other riders. Here's hoping we get to see him racing in America again sometime soon.