Having moved from London in 2016 to Casale Volpe, a small, secluded cycling-orientated B&B in Le Marche region of Central Italy, a gloriously hot July day last summer gave VeloVeritas reader Mike Curtis the chance to meet up and ride, relax and chat over lunch with local ex-pro and gregario di lusso Andrea Tonti.
After a 60km ride over the hilly roads that characterise the area, showers and a dip in the salt-water pool, Andrea and Mike got down to delving deeper into the career of this somewhat unsung hero, who during his career provided unwavering service for his leaders at teams such as Cantina Tollo, Acqua & Sapone, Saeco, Lampre and Quick-Step, as well as the Italian National Squad.
By Mike Curtis
Andrea, first, tell us about your time riding in the U23s…
“I spent four years in the U23 category, the 1995 season at the Mengoni-USA team in Le Marche Region where I grew up [the same Fred Mengoni, real estate mogul from Andrea’s home town of Osimo, who emigrated to New York in 1957 and in 1980 founded GS Mengoni in New York with its illustrious alumni such as Steve Bauer, George Hincapie and Mike McCarthy, and also long-time friend and confidant to a certain Greg Lemond].
“In 1996 I upped-sticks and left my home region for northern Italy and the cycling hotbed of the Veneto for one season with the Venezia Pasta Montegrappa squad, and it was here where I got my first call-up for the National Team to ride the European Military Championships.
“At 20 I moved and spent two years at Sintofarm-Tolotti in Piacenza in Emilia-Romagna under the guidance of DS Ennio Piscina, in a long-established and very well-disciplined team with some real big-hitters, and it was here that I really learned my trade as a support rider.
“In 1997 I was in the team that helped Oscar Mason win the Baby Giro, even though I was forced to retire following a bad crash on the descent of the Monte Grappa, losing my fourth place on the GC and the lead in the Young Rider’s competition.
“I still had 3 wins for the year, and again represented the Italian National Team at the Open Tour of Okinawa where I placed third overall.
“In 1998, still with Sintofarm-Tolotti, I won five races; Coppa Poggetto at Tabiano Terme, the queen stage of the Giro del Veneto, the hill climb at Como-Brunate, the GP Colli Rovescalesi at Rovescala, and the GP Somma Lombardo, and I got second place overall in the Giro della Toscana and third at the Giro del Veneto.”
Then at 23 you turned pro, in 1999, with Cantina Tollo. How did you get that ride?
“The team was based in my home region, in Civitanova Marche and it was run by DS Giuseppe Petito with a local youth scout, Franco Gini as part of the management team – he’d noted my ability in the U23s, especially in stage races.
“I stayed there for three years and became a kind of right-hand man for team-mate Danillo Di Luca and for other members of the squad like sprinter Nicola Minali, Dane Bo Hamburger, TT specialist Serghei Honchar, Milan-San Remo winner Gabrielle Colombo and (Amstrong bullying victim) Filippo Simeoni.
“However, despite my domestique role, I still managed a very rewarding 23rd place overall on the GC in the 2000 Giro. It was during this period though that I started having some recurring injury issues that needed time to sort out, and certainly limited how well I was going.”
What was the transition from U23 to pro like for you?
“It was very difficult to be honest, especially the first year; getting used to the increased distances, the higher speeds and bigger gears.
“In the U23s, we’d be riding 5km climbs at 20km/h, spinning smaller gears, but even as a bit of a ‘diesel’ on climbs that suited me before. As a young pro you still tend to lack the required power and resistance of an older experienced climber of, say, 28-32 years old.
“For big stage races with multiple climbs, you really need to be a bit older in my opinion, physically more mature and developed to deal with the higher speeds, repeated longer climbs and push the bigger gears required.
“It’s easier to find a sprinter who’s quick and can win stages at age 22 or 23, rather than a GC contender at that age.”
Danilo Di Luca was your team-mate for six seasons, 1999-2004 – what was he like as a team leader?
“I’ve known Di Luca since I was 10 years old – we’re the same age and competed in all of the same big races together, but were never team-mates before. I was based in Le Marche, he was in neighbouring Abruzzo.
“We’d compete against each other at races like the National Championships or get to ride together for the Italian National Squad.
“Even as a young boy, he was always really strong, same in the U23s and the pros, but even as a 10-year-old in the kids’ races, he was always the one to beat, very quick – he had a real winner’s mentality, as well as the physical qualities to match. A great climber with a real kick, the complete package… if he didn’t drop you on the climbs, he’d beat you in the sprint.
“He was a very good team leader too, always able to motivate his riders; ‘The Killer’ oozed self confidence which in turn translated into a strong belief within the team.
“His declarations of the type “today is a tough stage, and I’m going to win it. Leave me at 3km to go, and I’ll do the rest”, was great for team morale. He’d predict a win in advance, and whilst it didn’t always come off, he’d invariably come close.
“When it really mattered, he certainly had the right mental attributes, a born winner – which he did very often. Not easy to do in competitive sport, when you have to put your money where your mouth is.”
Your first Giro in 2000 was with Cantina Tollo, do you have any specific memories?
“It was my first Giro so it was a big deal for me and very emotional given that Pantani was still riding.
“I was there as a domestique to help Di Luca for the overall. Halfway through he had to pull out due to tendinitis so in the second half I was able to ride my own race and get myself noticed a bit, and I ended up getting 2nd or 3rd in the neo-pro classification, and 23rd on GC, which was a good result not only for me as a young pro and my future, but also for the team. Not bad, given that I’d had to ride for an injured Di Luca and wait for him up to that point, losing lots of time in the process.
“With Di Luca out, the DS in the team meeting gave me carte blanche to ride my own race, go with the breaks and improve my position on GC, to gain some publicity for both me and the team.
“To win a stage though, you’d really have to be in the early break, but there would be the risk that it didn’t come off and you’d lose a heap time on the GC; for the GC you’d need to follow the wheels and focus on that.
“Don’t forget it was also my first time in the Giro – I was unsure of my level, how far I could go, and I didn’t have the experience of racing against other team leaders and battling it out on the final climbs. Also for the team, I was also a bit of an unknown quantity.”
You rode the Vuelta a few times – how did it compare to the Giro?
“Yes, I’ve done the Vuelta five times and the last three (2006-2007-2008) were always used as preparation for the Worlds; five days from the finish you’d pull out, go home and rest in readiness for the Worlds in ten days’ time.
“The Vuelta would finish on the Sunday and you’d meet up with the Italian squad on the Monday, so you’d be mentally fresh too thanks to the break, a chance to spend some time with the family and not be racing or travelling.
“The Vuelta is a lovely race that’s always appealed to the Italians; it’s at the end of season, there’s less pressure, and with late starts around 13:00 – 13:30 (it’s so unlike the Tour or Giro where you’d be up at 6 for a 10 o’clock start) you could get to sleep in a bit, until 10:00, 10:30.
“The stages tended to be shorter than the Tour and Giro too in that era. Even though there would be incredibly tough stages like those to the Angliru and the Lagos de Covadonga, I was never there under pressure as a GC rider like at the Giro.
“Riding the Vuelta for Quick-Step, my role was to help Bettini and Boonen for the stage wins, either accompanying them in breaks or leading out the sprints, and Juan Manuel Garate and Carlos Barredo were there as the protected, home riders for the GC.
“There was always an eye kept on not going too deep before the Worlds, and pulling out early wasn’t an issue, despite the potential tension between the trade team’s DS and the National Squad’s manager – there would be mutual consent, because it would still be an advantage in terms of prestige having two or three riders from your trade team riding well and getting a good result at the World Championships.
“Sure you’d have to follow team orders – they’re paying the bills after all – but you wouldn’t do anything that would compromise your condition, like going on a lone break for 100km when the stage was clearly going to finish in a sprint, say, as opposed to maybe getting in a break with 20 others riders, contributing but not going too deep, and potentially winning the stage.
“You didn’t want to do anything that didn’t really serve a genuinely positive purpose for either the team or your fitness for the upcoming Worlds.”
You were with Saeco and Gilberto Simoni in 2002-2004 – what was he like?
“As a rider, Simoni was clearly a champion – you don’t get to finish on the podium at the Giro seven times, to win it three times, and to win stages at the Giro, Tour and Vuelta without being a great athlete.
“As for his character, sure, he was quite an introverted, reserved and quiet type, but as a team leader at the Giro you knew he’d be able to deliver and the team believed in him, he had the results to back him up.
“In the Giro warm-up stage races he’d always be riding strongly. Let’s say he’d let his legs let the talking, especially in the big stage races where his ability to recover each day was exceptional.
“He wasn’t really made for one-day races like Liege or Lombardy because he wasn’t very quick, but he was very skinny, very light and small and his power-to-weight ratio served him well in the high mountains where the terrain really suited him. In 2003 he won three stages at the Giro as well as the overall.”
The Cunego/Simoni Giro in 2004, tell us about the team tactics and the rivalry.
“Well… we started with Simoni as the designated team leader, with Cunego as a strong support rider having just won the Giro del Trentino in Simoni’s back yard two weeks before, with the team thinking things would go to plan and that Damiano would help Gilberto at the Giro.
“That was the tactic, but the roles ended up being reversed.
“In the early part of the race, Cunego was given his freedom and on the mountain stage to Montevergine he took the initiative, won the stage – he was going really well, super strong – and took the pink jersey from Simoni, who really wasn’t at the same level in 2004 as he was in 2003.
“Once in pink, the team couldn’t really attack Cunego for Simoni’s benefit, they’d only be able to wait for Cunego to blow up – and he didn’t.
“On the 16th stage to Falzes, 217km, where Cunego attacked on the Passo Furcia, Eddy Mazzoleni and I had been in the morning break along with 20 other riders, with the plan that Simoni would come across to join us in the leading group. We saw later on the TV that in fact Simoni had attacked first, but it hadn’t been a strong one, decisive enough to drop his main rivals like Popovych and Honchar.
“Once he was brought back, instead it was Cunego that attacked and got across to us as we waited, and went on to win the stage and took the pink jersey again, this time for good.
“In 2004 Cunego ended up as the UCI number 1, having won around 20 races; in 2003 when Simoni attacked he’d be able to get rid of people and finish alone but in 2004 he just wasn’t as strong and four or five riders would be able to go with him and beat him at the finish. He just no longer had the power to stay away on his own.
“On the other hand, Cunego was going fantastically well; he could drop his rivals and Simoni wouldn’t be able to go after him because of team orders. And don’t forget, it was Simoni, rather than Cunego, that was being heavily marked by the other teams, because everyone thought the younger man was bound to blow up sooner or later.
“All eyes were on Simoni, because even if Cunego were to take a lead of two or three minutes everyone thought that team orders would kick in a