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Zappi's Pro Cycling- From pave to cafe and back again

Planet X has recently struck up a deal to help get quality young British riders into the ranks of the pro-peloton. The Sheffield based cycling manufacturer has stepped up to the plate as primary sponsor of Flavio Zappi's Pro-Cycling race team.

We'll let Zappi tell us how it all started, all those years ago in the Italian hills. "Ciao, I was a kid living in a hotel restaurant in Italy and it was my brother, older brother, Ivan, who was 18, who was the cyclist. He was very passionate about cycling I was just a kid, 14, and the national Columbian team were staying in a hotel locally in Baresi for the world track championships and my brother suggested that we go out on our road bikes while the guys are on the track. I thought that he was mad, but he coaxed me into it. So we did. We borrowed some bikes and did a loop and I realised that I was fast and that was my introduction to cycling."

With cycling obviously in his blood it wasn't long before an opportunity came knocking. "During my last year as an amateur I was doing a lot of races, every weekend, whenever I could race I would. In Italy, every category is 2 years and you progress through the ranks 3rd cat, 2nd cat and 1st cat. The juniors are also two years and then you can be an amateur for 4-5 years. If you don't become a pro during that time then it's time to get a real job! In Italy once you're 26 you can't race in the amateurs anymore you have to move on and participate with the sportive rides or just give up."

"I started as an amateur after riding as a junior. Within two years I had become a pro. By the time I was 20. I won big races as a new amateur which were elite UCI level. It would be the same as an ex-junior racing as a first year senior and winning something like the Rutland or Birmingham GP races. I won a handful of those events and caught the eye of the pro teams and I signed up in June with Honved Bottecchia, they're a company from Treviso north of Venice and competed in the classic 80's races across Italy, France, and Belgium. So I raced the classics, Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan San Remo then onto Belgium for the 3-days, De Panne, Flanders, Paris Roubaix, Liege Bastone Liege and Fleche Wallonne."

Zappi has covered most of the pave races in Europe during his career we asked him what it was like. "Yes I've bounced my way across all of the pave. I had never even seen the pave until I turned up for Paris Roubaix. The team took us to test in the Arenberg Forrest. We drove up from Compiegne. When we arrived we just jumped out and onto the bikes. The stretch is about a mile long and by the time we had ridden back round to the car some of the lads already had blisters on their hands. I always remember that. If you don't know what to do, how to hold the bar then that's going to happen, you can hold on too tight. The Pave just punishes you for poor technique."

How was your first Roubaix? "I spent most of it in the bus. They come along and sweep up the stragglers, it wasn't like it is today with the broom wagon; this was an old double decker bus and it was freezing cold and full. The second time I rode it though I was better prepared and I managed a top 20 placing. I was in a lead group with 4-5 guys; we were 2 minutes behind the front riders, Vonder and Gregor Brown. Then a couple of stretches after that Sean Kelly pulled through with another ten riders in tow and caught us and we rode together for a while and then he dropped me and I finished with Steven Roche. That was seven and a half hours of racing. Milan San Remo a few weeks earlier was seven hours 14 minutes but Paris-Roubaix was even longer, it deserves its name 'the Beast of the North'. No doubt about that."

You wore the Maglia Verde in the Giro, what was that like, how does that feel for an Italian cyclist? "I didn't win it, but yes I wore it for two weeks and then lost it in the last village in the mountains. Laurent Fignon was coming through on an attack to try and take the pink jersey Francesco Moser. He wasn't interested in my jersey he was after the pink. He went through four passes and took a lot of points that day. I won the first mountain that day, but he took the other four, so he probably netted 10-15 points."

What were the grand tours like? "If you were well, fit, then they get better and better with each passing day. But if you're not well you're just going to get smashed. There's no mercy in these races, riders are going to exploit any weakness that they can, whenever they can, it's the nature of racing."

How much do you think the Grand Tours have changed since then, that was 20 years ago? "I think they are the same races they ever were. The standard of the riding has improved a little bit, but the race is still just as unforgiving as it ever was. A classic race is more to do with your quality as a rider, how good you are on the day. The stage races are different, it's all to do with your physical fitness, you simply have to be really fit. Even if you're not a really great climber, but you are persistent, and fit then you can be a top class rider."

What about doping, how did that affect riders and riding in the 80's? "Drugs have always been an issue in cycling. I left the pro-peloton partly because of the use of drugs. I was aware, especially during the 84 Giro that there was the opportunity for me to do well, I was in the shape of my life, but by the end of the year I had become demoralised with what was obviously the effect of drug use on the performance of other riders. Guys who were just decent amateurs suddenly became world class cyclists. I wanted to be alive at 50 and able to see my children grow up so there was never any chance of me getting involved in that arms race. Steroid use was widespread and blood doping was just beginning to become popular, transfusions were the flavour of the month, so I took the decision to quit the pro peloton and I don't regret it at all."

What brought you to Britain? "I came back to England 17 years ago. When I stopped riding I had a hotel business, it was the family business but my wife Jayne and I decided we wanted a change of scene, so we gave up being hoteliers and we came back to the UK."

How did you meet your wife? "After the Tour of Etna, I stayed on for a circuit race and I met her there in one of the hotels. I was meant to go and ride in Belgium, but I asked my manager if I could leave a day or two early to go to London. So I took my bike, jumped on a plane and went to see her- completely unannounced. The funny thing about road signs in Italy is that they are the other way round. Not upside-down but green for motorway and blue for local roads. Imagine my surprise when I chose to ride down the M23 from Gatwick to find her house- in Brighton! It didn't take me too long to get down to Brighton- I rode the M23 almost the entire way. I had only spent two days with her in Italy and just had her address scribbled down on a piece of paper; I was on a wing and a prayer. I got to Brighton and stopped the first person I saw in the town to ask them for help with directions. I was utterly lost, a stranger in a strange land. But by some amazing stroke of luck, after cycling 100 miles from London to Brighton, down the M23, the first person I see to stop and ask for directions, turned out to be her brother. It was meant to be! So I cycle to her house, she's at work. She has no idea I'm coming to visit her; it was completely off the cuff. She comes back from work to find a tired, dusty, dirty Italian cyclist waiting for her in her home. The rest is history.

So that brought you back to Britain, you and your wife had been away a long time, but how did you get back into cycling? "I had completely given up cycling at this time; I spent more time playing football. We raised two boys and they both started playing football semi-pro, so that took over my life and I wasn't that much interested in cycling at all. In fact, I have a big gap in the nineties where I didn't cycle at all. So when I got back into cycling I had to catch up- a lot. When I got back into it 5-6 years ago I had to start from scratch. So I followed the magazine advice and I tried training with heart monitors and power meters, but they just don't work for me, they're just rubbish!"

Power meters are rubbish, that's controversial! "Did I really say that, laughs? They are just another gadget, a way for the industry to make you paranoid. I don't want my boys to train on those I want them, to be able to listen to their bodies. A power meter just tells you how you are doing; it doesn't explain why you are performing at 100% or only 95%. My boys will learn to listen to their bodies, to know themselves as cyclists."

Tell me about the team, did it come from the club, or did it come from the coffee shop? "I used to run half a dozen coffee shops, running back and forward all the time. I decided to try to remove all the stress from my life. Just to focus on the biggest shop and concentrate on that business. Around this time my dad passed away and that had an effect on me, it pushed me to go out and get fit. I started cycling again with a bike I fished out of a skip; I gave the guy £1 for it. I got some shoes, dug out an old track top and I was ready for 2009 on a bike again. I enjoyed it like I had as a child; it allowed me to be free. I started training, just chasing commuters at first then I started with the Oxford University cycling rides. I got a better bike, proper shoes and started to set up a club that ran out of the cafe; Zappi Cycling Club Oxford. From there I started racing and the club acted as a hub for other cyclists."

"I had the feeling back again, the love for cycling even on a cheap bike. In 6-7 months, I started racing, lost 10kg, and started training like a pro. As long as I had my helmets and sunglasses on I still felt like a pro from 20 years earlier. I didn't train with meters of monitors or any of that stuff and I went from 4th Cat to 3rd Cat in 3 months."

How does your success translate to the cycling club? "I think my drive flows into the club, we've just won an award for the best sports club in Oxfordshire so we must be doing something right. People enjoy the rides and keep coming back, that's my measures of success. We have 250-280 members, with lots of kids and women. It's a great mix, a good mix of age and experience. I really focus on getting the kids into cycling we do the Go-ride, we do club mark, all that sort of stuff that gets people involved."

What can I expect as a typical Zappi cycling club member? "You can take your kids on the go-ride session to learn bike skills, road sense. You can bring your wife along for the ladies rides. We have three groups that go out on the Sat-Sun so everyone can find their level. We also do midweek chain gangs, where you can come to up your game and learn from the experienced guys. We just want people to have a great social experience with other people who love cycling."

Where did the jump to running a youth team happen? "Well, I took a few tumbles racing as a master and I realised that I'd be better off passing on my knowledge to younger riders than bouncing on my head. I decided to start coaching a team from the club and the surrounding area and that grew and grew to become the whole of England. I picked up a lot of riders who had dropped through the net of British Cycling; who were only really focussing on the track riders. The guys who were strong on the road and on the climbs like Dan Pearson and James Knox, great climbers, were falling through the gaps in the British Cycling program. You don't want to lose this talent just because they don't fit in with a narrow track cycling focus.

What's your take on the British Cycling approach? "I think we're losing an opportunity, were losing the chance to ride the enthusiasm of the British public and to improve the raw interest in road racing. There are a lot of cyclists who love racing and ride on the road and there's young talent that can't race properly in the UK. We still have open road races, it's just not safe. There were two lads that died in the UK a couple of years ago, racing on open roads. We can't have that. That's one of the good things about racing in my team; we race abroad, on closed roads. I know the continent; I know all the major races and routes. You have to think about the expense of racing in the UK as well, license fee, race fees, travel, hotels. If you're not part of a big club you have to pay £40-50 just to enter, it all adds up. For my team to race one event in the UK costs the same as it does to race a handful of UCI sanctioned events in Europe. We give lads the chance to ride and race cost effectively and to help them maximise their potential."

"I think it is a massively important issue. There's a real lack of quality races in the UK, we choose shorter events, on open roads. If you look at  typical Elite races, 1st and 2nd cat riders it's only 120km that doesn't stand up. In Europe juniors race 140k, that's why riders have to go to Europe to develop and become a pro. If riders don't get over to Europe to race when they are young enough they miss the boat. You have to be out there when you are 18. We lose the talent here in the UK because they can't catch up later in life, by the time you are 21, if you are still in the UK, you've likely missed the pro-peloton."

"I picked up two riders last year, Dan and Dante who both became pro riders; one with Rapha, the other didn't accept a pro contract with Rapha as he had a better deal come in from Italy. But both of these lads are riders who didn't work through the British pro system and British Cycling- they had to leave to come back- so to speak. Both of these lads raced at the u23 champs last year and came 2nd and 3rd. That proves the system works. All the other boys on the team came in the top 10 in the u23 category. There were lots of guys in that race from Madison, Rapha, Velosure all top tier riders and my lads shone out on the longer and tougher race. We're all keen to step it up again in the upcoming year."

You've just a got a load of new alloy training and carbon race bikes from Planet X. Where do the bikes fit into the program, what's the back story? "I sent Dave an email explaining what we were trying to and that we were looking for bikes. He said "we don't give out free bikes" but said he'd go off and have a think about it anyway. He replied via email the next day and said he'd spoken to Jamie Burrow, and that Jamie knew of me from my time as a pro. Dave said he liked my story and what I was doing and wanted to be part of it. That was good to hear, he must get hundreds of begging emails every day from people claiming to have top riding talent under their wings."

"Then the day after that, I get a call, from Dave, asking me if I can do him a favour. This favour is to go to Newbury in my van and pick up a big leather Chesterfield sofa. So I did. I went over there and when I get there this thing is huge, it weighs a tonne, literally. There's just no way I can get this in my van, he needs a real removal van! I go from not having a main sponsor, to having a sponsor to being enrolled as a delivery man by Dave all in the course of a weekend. He's very much like that; once you're on 'his team' anything goes!"

"Planet X is great to work with, they have good kit, some amazing staff and the work ethic there is first rate. They just want to bring cycling to the masses, to get as many people on bikes as they can. There's a real enthusiasm for all aspects of cycling over there."

"I've just laid hands on the bikes today. I know the RT-90 carbon race frame and I like it. I've ridden it and it's a good bike, sharp, precise, stiff and light. I like the colour scheme that we've put together for the team bike. But the boys won't start riding on that. I like them to train on a heavier bike, to put the miles in on a bike that takes more effort to pedal. I like to keep things simple, so they'll be running the RT-58 alloy as their training bikes. They're spec'd up with good quality, durable parts, but a training bike shouldn't be a featherweight. I think they should be solid, rugged."

When will the lads get their chance to throw a leg over the bikes? "The training program starts next week in Portugal. We've been doing this now for three years and it works very well. I need somewhere inexpensive with good food, good roads and regular sunshine so we can put a lot of miles in. We are cycling 4-5 hours every day, the lads do train off the bike as well, strength work and endurance training. We also do yoga and there's some language lessons thrown in as well. We train the lads how to eat properly, how to shop for their training, how to cook properly and how to look after their bikes. It's an entire lifestyle, it's not just race coaching. We teach them how to be pro-riders. The boys are 18-19 and it's generally the first time they've been away from the UK for any length of time. It's a real shock to the system for them, they go out boys and come back men, or they drop out altogether. It's not easy, though the dropout rate isn't massively high. For some lads, the lifestyle just isn't going to be right for them and they go back to the UK to race. Becoming a pro-cyclist is physically and mentally demanding, not everyone is cut from the right cloth for it."

How big is the team this season? "We're carrying 8-9 riders this year and there's a good mix between powerful riders, climbers, breakaway specialists. It has the makeup of a full pro-team. We have the right backing in place to support the lads, we have a great sponsor line-up and I'm looking forward to getting out to Portugal next week to start putting the lads through their paces."

What's your best cycling memory? "Finishing the Giro 1984 in the Verona Arena after riding a hard final TT stage. That was beautiful, I'll never forget that. I met my father after the race, it was the first time I had seen him all year. We greeted each other and kissed and someone took a photo of it. I never saw the photo while my dad was alive so I thought I'd lost that moment forever. Then a few years ago someone found the photo and sent it into me. It's two of my most precious things combined- family and cycling."


12 January 2015