Interview with Stefano Garzelli, former winner of Il Giro d'Italia

Stefano Garzelli, winner of the 2000 Giro d'Italia

Interview with Stefano Garzelli, former winner of Il Giro d'Italia.

As part of an ongoing collaboration with the website, I have been carrying out a series of interviews with prominent people involved in the cycling community in the Valencia Region. The article below is an English version of the original Spanish text which was published on 07/03/22, which you can read here: entrevista con Stefano Garzelli.


“The gregario is the essence of cycling”

Welcome to the new installment of our series of interviews, in which from Gregarios we speak with some of the many people who make up the cycling community in the Valencian Community, an area known throughout the world for the excellent conditions and facilities it offers for the practice of cycling. A few days ago we published the interview with the Valencian cyclist Javier Benitez and this week we talked to Stefano Garzelli (Varese, Italy, 1973), a former professional cyclist who competed for 17 seasons, during which time he worked as a favoured domestique for the much-lamented Marco Pantani, as well as notching up a total of 33  victories of his own including, of course, the final victory in the 2000 Giro d'Italia.

6th tappa San Vigilio di Marebbe – Plan de Corones (TT) 12.9 km – BettiniPhoto©2010 – Stefano Garzelli (Acqua&Sapone – D'Angelo&Antenucci)
Stefano Garzelli competing in 2010 Giro d'Italia 6th Stage San Vigilio di Marebbe – Plan de Corones (TT) 12.9 km – BettiniPhoto©2010

Based in Valencia for more than a decade now, he currently runs the Stefano Garzelli Team for young cyclists, which this year has seen its coverage expanded with the inclusion of a junior team, and works as a commentator on cycling races for Italian national broadcaster RAI. He found a time to talk to us from Varese, where he is preparing his television work for the upcoming races in the recently-launched cycling season.

Gregarios: Good morning, Stefano, and thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Your name is well known to many of cycling fans because of your cycling career, but they may not know as much about your story before you made the move to the professional category, so please tell us who Stefano Garzelli is and how you came into contact with the world of cycling.

SG: I grew up in a small town of about 2000 inhabitants, and I joined the local cycling school at a very early age, when I was about 8 or 9 years old. I rose through the different age categories as I was growing up, and because I was able to stand out because of my results I found the motivation to continue. In a way, I followed in the footsteps of my older brother, who also competed, although he was very bad (laughs). I can say that now, and its also true that if I had been bad I would have given it up, too, like him. But I did quite well and it was clear to me that I wanted to be a professional from a very young age, that was always my goal.

Stefano Garzelli leading the Giro d'Italia
Stefano Garzelli leading the Giro d'Italia

Gregarios: We are talking about a time, the beginning of the '80s, when you started racing in which steel frames were the norm, helmets weren't obligatory and there were no combined and indexed brake levers/shifters, and of course there were no electronic groupsets, among others many things. Looking at these differences now, what would you say have been for you the biggest changes in the world of competitive cycling over this period? 

SG: Of course, for me the biggest change has been in the use of data, in the access to data even during races. Now you can not only train with data, with a power meter, and identify and work on the different thresholds, but you can also race while accessing data, in real time. This greatly removes the rider's ability to improvise, since eveerything is known in advance, everybody knows exactly what they can and cannot do. It is very difficult to break a race open now as everyone is on the limit and they know there is very little room for an attack. And what's more, with the access to so much data, riders are trained to go to specific races to do a very specific job, at a specific time, to their limit. There are more riders on each team, and each rider is assigned a very specific individual role. Previously, the teams were smaller, with fewer riders, and all the riders went to all the races. It was a different way of racing, more open. It created more opportunities for spectacle. Naturally there are exceptions, but in general the sense of spectacle has been diminished over the years. 

Stefano Garzelli working for team mate Marco Pantani at the Giro d'Italia
Stefano Garzelli working for team mate Marco Pantani at the Giro d'Italia

Gregarios: Would you change that, the use that is currently made of the data? 

SG: I agree with the opinion expressed by Alberto Contador: that the data is very useful when it comes to training, but that it detracts from the spectacle of the races. If I had a choice, I would remove the use of date from races. 

Gregarios: The RAE (Royal Spanish Academy) provides us with a definition of the term “gregario” in relation to the world of cycling as that of a "rider charged with helping a team leader or another cyclist of a superior category than their own", and although this definition is true, it does seem somewhat incomplete. As someone who sees the world of competitive cycling from the inside, how would you define the concept of “being a gregario”?

SG: The figure of the gregario is a fundamental part of competitive cycling, perhaps even the most important part of a team. For the captain, the team leader, the gregario is everything: he is his team mate, his support, his source of motivation and his friend. 50%, 60% of the merit of each victory belongs to the gregarios. They give themselves to their team leader 100%. When I went to the Giro with Marco Pantani I had no personal goals, none whatsoever, my only goal was to help my captain 100%. It's the winner's name that appears in the newspaper, but within the teams everybody knows that victory belongs to everyone. I still have great friends, great friendships, with people who rode with me as gregarios. Perhaps some people do not understand it, they may think that working for another rider somehow makes a cyclist inferior, but it is not true: the gregario is the essence of cycling. 

Gregarios: You had a very long career as a professional cyclist that took you, from a very young age, to racing in many different countries with many different teammates. There is no doubt it must have been a very intense life experience. Wins aside, what would you highlight as the best experience of your time in the peloton? What has the bicycle given you? 

SG: My cycling career taught me to face and overcome my own limits. My physical limits, obviously, but especially my mental limits. As a competitive cyclist you find yourself in very difficult situations, situations that require extreme efforts, because of the race, because of the weather, because of the situations that arise, often far from home, situations in which someone else might say “That's enough! I'm going home!”, but you have to learn to go on, to not  give up, and that is very useful lesson to learn not only for your career, but also for your life. And on the other hand, the life of a professional cyclist is very beautiful. You suffer, yes, it's true, but it is also true that you only have to concentrate on one thing, training and competing, everything else is done for you: travel, hotels, clothing, the bike… You visit many new and interesting places, you play a role in very big events, such as the Giro d'Italia, in front of the public and millions of viewers around the world, you are interviewed and people ask for your autograph, you create very solid friendships, and on top of that, they pay you! I wouldn't be honest if I said I don't miss it from time to time, it's a very special experience. 

Members of the Stefano Garzelli Cycling Team in competition
Members of the Stefano Garzelli Cycling Team in competition

Gregarios: You have been very focused on your cycling school/team, the Stefano Garzelli Team, for some years now. Why did you choose Valencia to start this project? 

SG: Well, I started coming to Valencia while I was still a professional, around 2002, 2003, and then I met my wife, who is from here, and I moved here to live. After I retired, we were once in Varese, where they have named the municipal sports centre after me, and where there is a team named after me as well, and I began to think about setting up something else, let's say, something more solid, something that would not only bear my name but something that I was also really involved in. As my children had started going out on their bikes and they were in Valencia, we decided to set it up here. We had the idea on a Sunday, and on Wednesday we had it up and running, registered with the tax office and everything. And we've just carried on until the present day, when we currently have about 90 children signed up.  

Stefano Garzelli with members of his cycling academy in Valencia
Stefano Garzelli with members of his cycling academy in Valencia

Gregarios: The school works with boys and girls from a very young age, from 4 years old onwards. What goals do you set for the young people who join your school? 

SG: Above all, how to ride a bike safely and how to have fun doing it. If you learn this at an early age you never forget it. The school is open to everyone, and they can come on any bike they have, it doesn't matter, the main thing is that they learn and they have a good time. And if they join the team, we teach them to enjoy  racing, too. Results are something apart, something different, the most important thing is that they learn how to enjoy riding their bike. 

Gregarios: After quite a successful season last year, this year sees you launching a junior team, which is sure to mean more work, more races, more logistics: do you plan to continue creating higher category teams as your riders mature? How far do you see the limit in this regard? 

SG: This depends, especially on the budget. Competing in more categories always means more work and more resources to be able to do well, so we'll see. We are doing it step by step. If a sponsor appears with the same ideas and the desire to expand the project, it is a possibility. As I say, we will see, at the moment we are very focused on the school and the teams that we have. 

Demonstrably happy campers from the Stefano Garzelli Cycling Academy
Demonstrably happy campers from the Stefano Garzelli Cycling Academy

Gregarios: Do you still get out on your bike a lot? 

SG: The truth is that not as much as I would like. With school work and work with RAI, sometimes I don't have time. Of course, another advantage of having been a professional for so many years is that I know that I can get into shape in 15 days. At first, the first two days of getting back on the bike, I have a hard time, like everyone else, but then the memory created during my time as a cyclist begins to act, the memory that the body has acquired from so many years of training and competing, and immediately I begin to improve. I notice it right away. 

Stefano Garzelli combines his work with his cycling academy with his role as commentator with Italian broadcaster RAI
Stefano Garzelli combines his work with his cycling academy with his role as commentator with Italian broadcaster RAI

Gregarios organizes its own Gran Fondo, called 'La Gregarios'. It was originally held for 5 editions in the 1940's and the route covers the 400km that separate Madrid, in the centre of Spain, from Valencia, on the Mediterranean coast. There are also a couple of alternative, shorter routes, for less demanding legs, and the question is… do you see yourself up to the task of completing the next edition of La Gregarios, which is to be on October 8th this year? And which other person would you nominate to complete the event? 

SG: Well, as I say, I can get into shape in a couple of weeks and I can do 400 km without problems. And if I couldn't do it myself, I would nominate Dario Andriotto, who was a team mate, a gregario, when we were professionals, and who is still my best friend. He now works for Alberto Contador's team, Eolo, so he's still involved in cycling and he's still going out on a bike, so I won't have any doubts about his ability to do it.


Giro d'Italia

Stefano Garzelli Team

RAE (Royal Spanish Academy)

La Gregarios

Michael Dixon

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