UAE Team Emirates had high hopes for their three main riders – Rui Costa, Diego Ulissi and Louis Meintjes – finishing inside the top 10. And although that would have been the dream, finishes of 14th, 30th and 48th for those three were not good enough for Saronni.
At 32, the UAE team manager is the youngest of all his peers among the other 17 UCI WorldTour teams, but he’s certainly no shrinking violet. His team is packed full of quality and promise, and he is determined to get the best out of them in their debut season and beyond.
“After the race I am disappointed, yes,” said the one-time Lampre trainee rider. “We were hoping to stay in the top 10, five with Rui and top 10 with Diego. Especially disappointed as Diego was not in the front of the race so we are not really happy about the end.
“Rui was there in the front but in the final he was not brilliant to take a placement, so we are not really happy about this. I can’t say that I’m happy.
“We have high standards and know this team is capable of better. We know something is changing from the past years, because we’ve changed the programme of Rui for the Giro d’Italia, for him to be in the best way for that, but we were thinking about better results.”
The silver lining on Sunday was how the team were performing elsewhere in Europe. Sacha Modolo claimed victory on the sixth and final stage of the Tour of Croatia, with Jan Polanc second. It was a second stage win for Modolo, who recovered from a bad crash on Stage 3.
UAE Team Emirates claimed half of the wins in Croatia, with Kristijan Durasek also claiming Stage 2 in his homeland.
With these three riders, as well as Costa, Ulissi and Simone Petilli (36th in Liege-Bastogne-Liege) all heading to the Giro, Saronni is confident of success at the famous race – where his father Giuseppe won the general classification on two occasions.
“We don’t have the big name for the overall but we want to fight for the stages,” Saronni said.
Colombian Darwin Atapuma would have been the team’s leader for the Giro, starting May 5, but fractured his wrist and suffered concussion during a fall at the Tour of the Basque Country in Spain at the beginning of the month.
“We think we can fight for the sprints and others with Rui and Jan. If you think about this we are happy and we think we will be there in the fight.
“From the start there are stages Rui can win, he has good characteristics. We also think he can fight for the pink jersey in the first few stages and also Sacha in the sprints too. We also have young guys like Polanc and Petilli for the sprints.
“Our goal is to win stages there but we had in the programme originally to go for the overall with Atapuma, but then he crashed.
“Maybe with Rui, overall is possible. He is the leader but Atapuma would have been there with the goal for the pink jersey.”
With Atapuma out, Modolo will also be elevated to a leader role at the famous Italian race. And, having underwhelmed prior to Croatia, Saronni feels Modolo’s and the team’s performance there means they are heading to the Giro in good form.
“Sacha recovered well from his injury and he’s a good leader for the Giro,” he said.
“It’s positive for him his stage wins and recovering from the crash, with Durasek also winning a stage. We were lucky his crash was nothing serious. We need him for the stages. Also Jan. It seems from the Tour of Croatia that the team for the Giro is ready.”
Giuseppe Saronni and Mauro Gianetti are two icons of Italian cycling, yet a deal they were instrumental in brokering a few days before the end of 2016 left one of the sport’s most famous nations without a team on the UCI WorldTour for the first time in the competition’s 10-year history.
Lampre–Merida’s demise not only brought to an end an illustrious 25-year association with professional cycling – it also severed Italy’s ties with the Union Cycliste Internationale’s (UCI) premier competition. But while the country shaped like a boot was given the, well, boot, in walked UAE Team Emirates.
Bahrain-Merida’s addition means that two of the 2017 WorldTour’s 18 teams are represented by Gulf countries – with South Africa’s Team Dimension Data and Kazakhstan’s Astana having led the way for newer cycling nations before them.
Gianetti is a cycling guru who initially enjoyed a fine career as a professional rider before becoming a team manager (most notably with Saunier Duval from 2004-11), sponsor and now the consultant who essentially sealed the deal that has seen UAE Team Emirates rise out of Lampre’s ashes. The 53-year-old said it had long been his dream to bring the UAE to pro cycling’s top table, but how it actually came to fruition is a tale of luck, opportunism, passion and ambition.
Close friend Saronni – World Road Race champion in 1982 and two-time winner of the Giro d’Italia – had originally secured Chinese-backing for his Lampre team last summer, but that fell through when head of the project, Li Zhiqiang, fell seriously ill.
Cue Gianetti, who gave his friend Matar Al Dhaheri, an Emirati property tycoon, a call.
“I was in discussions with Matar, talking about the project since April, but we thought it was probably a project for 2018,” Gianetti told Sport360 at the UAE Team Emirates hotel base in north-east Belgium for Sunday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege race.
“In the meantime I was working in China for this project when there was a problem. This is when I called Matar and said maybe it’s an opportunity to invest now.”
After that, things moved quickly. The UCI released its list of 17 WorldTour teams on November 25 but Saronni and Gianetti were given extra time for UAE Team Emirates to be confirmed as the 18th and final 2017 Tour team on December 20.
Gianetti, who has dedicated his whole life to cycling, is an animated character. He is Swiss, but you would easily mistake him for Italian judging by his limbs’ sudden bursts of movement.
Even more so when considering the heavy Azzurri presence previously at Lampre and still at UAE Team Emirates – 14 of the squad’s 26 riders hail from lo Stivale (the Boot) as do almost the entirety of the managers, sport directors, masseuses and mechanics.
Despite his affection for both Lampre and UAE Team Emirates, he modestly plays down his influence on the deal and the clear high regard in which he is held by all concerned inside the team.
“I am a friend, a consultant,” he says. “This team is a special client for me because I was key in the change from Lampre to UAE and the relationship with Matar is very, very good. The riders know I was a rider too, general manager, sponsor, so I know all the faces of cycling. They like to ask me my opinion and it’s nice to share it.
“I am a little bit closer to this team compared to others because of my relationship with Carlo (Saronni, team manager and Giuseppe’s son) and his father. My life is here in cycling, it’s true.”
The man who represented Switzerland at the 2000 Olympic Games instead heaped praise on Al Dhaheri for his “vision” as well as Saronni Senior.
“Guiseppe was very good for the team. With a very low budget, much lower compared to other teams, to maintain a team at between 10th and 15th in the world, with a budget comparable to a football team in the second division, this was a great ability.”
Admirable indeed. But now backed by Emirates, Gianetti believes that a little luck and opportunism can become a huge opportunity to elevate the team to the heights Lampre simply never could.
“Of course, now it’s a big change but it’s also a big opportunity,” he said. “The team is growing and we must be serious in growing our team for the future and growing the young, arriving in two, three or four years a very good team.
“Some football teams buy big players but this is not the goal, it is to create a team.”
Former Lampre chief Giuseppe now acts as general manager. He is no longer as involved as before, but the famous Saronni name lives on in the guise of son, Carlo. He never came close to emulating the achievements of his father, but he’s an impressive man, nonetheless. The one-time Lampre trainee turned computer scientist is the UAE team manager, and the youngest in the history of the WorldTour, aged just 32.
Despite Saronni Jr and his team’s relative youth and seeming inexperience, he expects his baby to grow up quickly.
“We say thank you to UAE and Emirates for committing to a long-term programme so we can do our job as best as possible and improve the team,” said Saronni, who makes no secret of what he wants and believes the team can achieve.
“The idea is to be in the first three teams of the world. To be winning races and Grand Tours.”
He’s clever enough to know it won’t be a quick fix, with the focus on identifying and developing youth – Simone Consonni, Oliviero Troia, Edward Ravasi (all 22) and Filippo Ganna (20) are tipped for big things with all four still flying the flag individually for Italy.
“We try to have good riders like Rui [Costa] who can guarantee you points to stay in the WorldTour immediately,” added Saronni. “We are starting the work now to find the good riders for the future.”
The season started well, with Portuguese rider Costa claiming famous victory on home soil at the Abu Dhabi Tour, although Saronni freely admits things have not exactly gone according to plan since.
“From Abu Dhabi to now I expected something more but the programme is not always what you have in mind. The guys are human so are sometimes sick and injuries happen. I see the guys are improving their condition. We expect more points and victories.”
Italian teams might well have bowed out of the WorldTour picture for now, but the culture at UAE Team Emirates hasn’t, with Italian still the dominant language, although most of the team’s riders and staff speak at least two.
South Africa’s Louis Meintjes and Englishman Ben Swift, formerly of Team Sky, are both learning Italian – even if that might be dominated by the more colourful words.
“It’s still the Lampre team so it’s still an Italian culture but we speak a mix of English and Italian,” said Meintjes, the team’s top climbing talent. “I’m learning and I can speak a little bit. I can understand it even though I can’t speak fluently, but if my Italian is not good enough to reply, they try to understand my English. I actually learnt out of a book so I learnt all the good [words] first, and now I’m catching up on the bad ones.”
UAE Team Emirates’ Portuguese star Rui Costa finished 14th in Belgium on Sunday, claiming he was not in peak condition to be able to challenge for race victory – which was taken by Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde.
The Spaniard finished ahead of Quick-Step’s Daniel Martin in a mirror result in La Fleche Wallonne earlier in the week.
Having just returned from an altitude training camp in the Mount Etna region of Italy ahead of next month’s Giro d’Italia, Costa said he was never in shape to challenge the duo of Valverde and Martin – despite finishing just 10 seconds adrift.
“Movistar made it tough for us. Always they’re in the front,” said the 30-year-old. “I was not bad. Maybe I missed a little bit with the change of the rhythm as I’d just come back from altitude. You need a few races to get back into the rhythm and be competitive. I needed some races to compete for this sort of race.
“[Valverde and Martin] had competed in the Volta a Catalunya and Tour of the Basque Country so they were in a much higher shape than me.”
With the Giro getting underway on May 5, there are of course bigger concerns for both Costa and the team, and he is able to reflect on the positives from Sunday.
“I am preparing for the Giro and I think we will be able to say more about my shape after one more week,” he added.
“I feel as if I’m on way to getting back to the form I’ve been looking for. It was disappointing because I love Amstel (Road Race) and this race, but I did a different course to usual because I’m aiming for the Giro.
“I’m disappointed but I knew already that it could be this way and I’m looking at the bigger picture.”
There was better news across Europe for UAE Team Emirates as Sacha Modolo led a UAE one-two on the final Stage 6 of the Tour of Croatia, leading home team-mate Jan Polanc in Zagreb, with Trek – Segafredo’s Boy Van Poppel third – with Bahrain Merida’s Vincenzo Nibali claiming overall victory.
“It’s a silver lining. This is the other side today because we are happy,” said UAE Team Emirates team manager Carlo Soronni.
“Sacha, despite the crash previously, recovered very well and for the Giro it’s a good signal because we need Sacha for the stages. Also Jan was there, second in the stage and fifth overall, so it’s a signal their training camp work in Etna was good.”
It was a big plus for Modolo, who had crashed out of Stage 3 near the finish, having previously won Stage 1.