IT’S HARD TO IMAGIN E THAT FILIPPO POZZATO IS 35. After all, one of cycling’s golden boys still possesses the charm of the inspired young man who burst onto the scene by winning the Tirreno–Adriatico stage race at 21. And then there was his stunning Milan–San Remo victory when he was only 24. But beneath his ever-flowing curls and his fanciful collection of tattoos is a hardened 18-year professional. And while his easy smile and good looks have given him the stamp of one of the sport’s playboys, he has a consistent work ethic that catapulted him into another top-10 finish at the Tour of Flanders this year. And while he admits that he has an eye on retirement, Pozzato has had a renaissance as a team captain on the modest Wilier Triestina-Selle Italia team.
Words: James Startt
Images: Yuzuru Sunada & James Startt
Stage 7, Tour de France, 2004. Image: Yuzuru Sunada. Opening image: Stage 5, Tour de Langkawi, 2017. Image: Yuzuru Sunada.
Filippo, when we spoke at the beginning of the year you were thinking that this might be your last season. What do you think now? I was thinking this might be my last year, yes, but now it is almost certain that I’m going to continue. I’m still riding well and my team really wants me to continue, so I think I’ll probably go for another year. Okay, I’ve been a pro for 18 years, but I still feel good and, for sure, the motivation is still there. And I’ve got a good project with Wilier, so I’m thinking more like continuing.
You turned professional very young, at 18, straight out of the juniors, and signed with one of the world’s biggest teams, Mapei, in 2000. And then, in 2003, your first big victory came at Tirreno–Adriatico. Did you think then that maybe you would be a stage racer more than a one-day rider? Oh, no, Tirreno that year was not very hard. There were not the climbs like there are today. I understood that winning a race like Tirreno was pretty much my limit as a stage race rider. Never once did I think that I could become a Tour de France contender. I just never really had the characteristics needed to be a big stage race rider, certainly because as soon as we hit the high mountains, I was very limited.
And then, just a couple of years later you won Milan–San Remo, probably your greatest victory ever. What do you remember about that day? Oh, firstly I remember the emotion after the race. I thought at the start that I had a chance to win. But doing it is another thing. You have to ride a perfect race to win a monument like that and everything has to go your way. And that day it did!
Milan-San Remo, 2006. Image: Yuzuru Sunada.
Really, you thought you could win that day? Yeah. I was riding with Tom Boonen that year and he was one of the big favorites, especially in a sprint. As a result, I was sent to cover breaks. That’s what I did, and playing off of his presence allowed me to get away.
You were teammates with Tom and your careers ran in parallel. What are your thoughts on Boonen now that he has retired? Oh, what a rider! Tanta grinta! Not only was he strong but he always knew how to handle the pressure. You know he is Belgian, and a cycling star in that country has so much pressure. He always knew how to handle it and still arrive at all of his big objectives 100 percent. He had his ups and down, sure, but when you look over his career, he is one of the greatest. And he is a great person too! He is incredible.
And how about yourself? It is not every year that an Italian wins Milan–San Remo. Did you start to feel a lot more pressure after such a big victory? Winning a race like Milan–San Remo was huge. It gave me a lot of confidence. There are not a lot of riders that have won one of the monuments. But I have. That said, it added pressure. Every year I have a lot of pressure from the fans. And every year the Italian press writes about how I won Tirreno when I was 21 years old and Milan–San Remo when I was 24. There are always some journalists that expect me to be winning all of the time, but it is not possible to win all of the time, especially when you are talking about the big, big races. Look at Peter Sagan this year! For me, he was the strongest rider in the early classics, but he didn’t win San Remo, he didn’t win Flanders and he didn’t win Roubaix. Winning at that level is really not easy. I also finished second in Flanders and second in Roubaix don’t forget. But winning is another thing. As good as Sagan is, he has only won one of the monuments.
Filippo, you are the incarnation of the cycling spirit in the sense that cycling is the only sport where you can be in the gruppetto one day and win the next. Every day is a new chance, and even though you have not been the sport’s biggest winner, for 18 years now, you keep coming out fighting, and on occasion really coming up with a big result. Heck, even though you are not on a WorldTour team, you were top 10 again in the Tour of Flanders! Well, that is the beauty of our sport! But every race is different. Every day is different. In a stage race like the Giro d’Italia, one day might not suit you at all and the next one is perfect. Every day is another opportunity for someone. The biggest thing is to be able to maintain your motivation. It is also a question of being on the right team, one that helps put you in your best condition. Sure, I would like to have won a Flanders or a world championship, but that wasn’t the case. I came close in 2012 at Flanders, but that day I came up against Boonen, and Tom is just that little bit stronger. But over the years I never lost my love of cycling. And even after I retire, I’ll still go out riding with friends and I’ll still watch the races on the television.
In the mountains, you are one of the most respected conductors of the caboose. How does one calculate the cut-off times all the time… sometimes very closely? First, with experience and then it is about calculating the cut-off time, not panicking and riding a steady pace to the finish. It’s something that really comes with experience.
You’ve mentioned that you would like to run your own team after you retire? Oh, yeah, that is something that really intrigues me, something I really dream of doing! I think I could really bring something to a team with all of my experience. I’ve been on really big teams and small teams and I think I have a sense of what a manager needs to do to run a team well and keep everyone motivated. The biggest problem is finding the big sponsor that will provide the backing.
Looking over the years, who was the best sports director that you ever worked with? Hmm…I would say the French director Philippe Mauduit. He was my director on Lampre. He is very professional but, most certainly, he has the ability to motivate riders. And that is huge!
The best manager? I’d have to say Patrick Lefevere [of Quick-Step]. He has had big teams and little teams. But he has always been able to win. His teams, big or small, go into every race with a plan. They are a factor in every race. It’s impressive.
Is there one objective you still hope to achieve before retiring? To win!