From the highway you can see Lecco’s mountains: quite limpid in a day that started badly and that might have continued worse. But the air got milder and there is this shy sun of October that makes the early afternoon look like the sunset time
It’s the eve of the last Classic of the season.
In the almost desert hall of the hotel, I ask about Tony Gallopin to the girls at the reception desk. One of them picks up the phone, she calls his room, she speaks French. A few words. He already knows everything.
He comes down in a few minutes. He has the after-race grey suit of his team, on the heart there is written: Lotto Soudal. In red. We shake our hands and we sit down on some little sofas close to the windows. I place the Lombardia’s booklet on the table.
“Is this tomorrow track?” asks Tony. He reads through, he looks for the altimetry. “Yesterday we tried the last fifty-seven kilometres. The Sormano is very hard but even this one…This new climb…”
And he points to the last roughness of that electrocardiogram on the paper.
“Civiglio” He confirms and makes a gesture to tell that is very steep. Very. “I did the Lombardia twice: it’s one of the most difficult races in the calendar.”
He goes distractedly through the booklet, then he closes it and he put it back on the table. At the end what interests to the ones who ride, is the altimetry. Most of all, even of the path. It’s the part they have to feel in the legs, better to put the soul in peace from the start.
He raises his gaze: he has the eyes between grey, green and lightblue under the dark, thick eyebrows. An incredible contrast of light and shadows. He waits for the questions and this is a phase that I would like to skip too. To ask. I have always been better at listening. But you have to start from something. Better with simple stuff.
I ask him if he likes to race in Italy. He makes a strange face and he starts laughing.
“No…not really” he admits, smiling. And I am happy because finally someone tells the truth at the first shot. Or at least something different.
“It’s a country I really like but unfortunately here I have just bad memories. When I was younger I raced in Tuscany and I fell many times during that period. And even recently, in the Italian races, I just remember awful crashes. Like at the Lombardia last year: I fell down twice! They don’t bring me any luck. We’ll see tomorrow”
And he jokes, stretching an arm to tap with the fingers on the table. That is wooden. A propitiatory gesture that is the same as our to touch iron.
The forecasts tell rain for tomorrow. Without any break. From the start to the finish. None likes to race under the rain but Tony isn’t certainly one that is afraid of the atmospheric conditions. I remind him this year victory at the Paris-Nice and he smiles.
“That was a tough day” he tells “quite like how it will be tomorrow. It rained and there were many climbs. It was truly amazing because that race is really special to me”
Quite like the Tour that for a French guy is the dream for excellence. Together with the yellow jersey. Maybe, if few years ago, someone would have told him that he would have worn the leader’s jersey of the Grand Boucle on the National Day, he wouldn’t have believed it. But it happened. On the 14th of July 2014 Tony got on the podium with that jersey, he put his hand on the heart and listened to his hymn.
“It was amazing. It was the National Day, there were so many supporters on the roads who screamed. Crazy! I think that on that day the people changed their ideas about me”
When I ask him what he would like to transmit to the people who watch him racing, he answers that the cycling is nice because it isn’t like the other sports: it shows everything close. “You know” he explains “the supporters can come to the buses, they can talk to their idols and they can see with their eyes that we are normal people. Simply, this is cycling. And I like it exactly for this side. For this I think that Peter Sagan is a good World Champion. We need people like this, that after the finish line throws the helmet and the gloves to the audience. I watch the American football and these gestures are common at every match. People gets crazy to have something special from the players. In cycling is really difficult to change the mentality and the state of the things but having some characters helps”
If this is the best side, which one is the worst?
He laughs. He would like to tell everything else, I know, but maybe he doesn’t dare. “Well” he replies smiling “the only good thing is the victory. For the rest… it’s just fatigue, you have to train a lot, you have very few time to stay with the family…”
He tells me that this winter he will spend his holidays on an Island and it will be the best moment of the year. Then the training camps will restart, the first is in December.
“For me is a real sacrifice to stay on a diet, to keep fit” he says “In winter I always gain some weight because I really like going out for dinner with my friends. I like the French restaurants and the good wine. Sometimes, when I have free time, I go to the cinema. Even if, telling the truth, I prefer to stay at home, to rest and take care of my garden. When I’m away for the races I miss all of this: with my friends we have a group on Whatsapp and sometimes when I’m far they send me pictures of meals or of the bottles of wine. We have fun even in this way. A good thing, on the other hand, is that when we’re around the world because of the races I have time to watch the TV series. Among the massage and the dinner I watch a pair of episodes. I love TV series, one of my favourite is American Horror Story”
When I ask him about his dreams for the next season he tells me that he loves the Classics, that he would like to win the Milano Sanremo, and this is not too impossible since this year he got ninth at the finish line in Via Roma. “I’m fascinated from the races at the North too, on the cobbles” he adds. “The Paris-Roubaix is the best of the calendar. I love racing in Belgium, there is a unique atmosphere. To win on that lands would be a pride.”
Brief answers, without frills. He doesn’t really like talking about cycling. He his a striker, what he tells on the road is already enough. During the Tour de France this year he stayed literally attached to the wheels of the best ones on the worst climbs.
He doesn’t talk much to the journalists, he tells it himself. And he’s right. This is another difficult thing to change in this sport that is harsh and delicate at the same time. When you don’t look much at the people and you concentrate on classifications, so you loose the sensibility of a work that should be special, but, it stays normal.
Tony tells me that he tried cycling as a game. His dad Joel was a professional cyclist and he was a chubby child, not really good at it. Then when he was junior, he started to achieve better results and improve.
And so, here I am. It seems he says. Now he is twenty-seven and this will be his third Giro di Lombardia.
We stand up and I’m pleasantly surprised when he asks me if I would like to have a coffee. I accept. The magic always starts when you close that damned notebook.
At the bar I have to tell him that I don’t drink any coffee and he jokes: “An Italian girl who doesn’t drink coffee? Strange”
I laugh and I get a Coke.
We talk about everything, of Monza, of the Formula One, of the charm of the Biranza’s track that you must see at least once in you life, of the roads we’ve here and of the many impatient drivers, of swimming, of books. He writes down the name of a French author who published a series of seven fantasy books.
“A great imagination is needed” he says.
I know what he means.
“And now massages are waiting for me”
It’s the best time of the day, I know it well. I thank Tony, we shake hands. See you tomorrow, I say. I keep “Good Luck” for the start, some wishes weighs more in the moment right before the race. Automatically I cheer for him. Cycling is a too human sport to not to be linked to the person who does it.
Here it works like in life: an instant of crazy happiness deletes days of effort, anger and tiredness.
And a guy who wore the yellow jersey in a feast day, in the middle of three long and very tough weeks, knows it.
Good Luck truly Tony. Touching wood, touching iron. Cycling is an universal place.
Thanks to Tony Gallopin for the time and to Guy Kostermans that made this interview possible.
Translated by Martina Meroni
Original version here → NATIONAL ANTHEM