‘You need to talk that Flavio Zappi boy, his lads are racing all over Europe and getting good results!’
As often happens with VeloVeritas it’s our spiritual guide and fiercest critic, Viktor who gives us inspiration on who we should be speaking to.
But there’s also the aspect that QuickStep new recruit James Knox, who we interviewed earlier in the year was a ‘Zappi Man’ so yes, times we had a word with Sen. Zappi.
Fast-forward a few weeks and Flavio Zappi is on the other end of my mobile phone making use of his ‘free’ time in the team car in the neutralised zone in yet another Italian U23 race.
‘It’s over 130 kilometres, very hilly at Osimo in the Marche region, not so far from Rimini,’ he explains.
We opened by asking him about his pro days but he was dismissive of that question; ‘a win or two and some top 15 placings, I only raced professionally for five years’ was all he wanted to tell us.
But of course being the stat obsessed anoraks we are, that wouldn’t do us and we had to do a little research.
Zappi had some strong amateur results in 1980 including third place in the prestigious GP della Liberazione and a win in the Coppa Bologna.
He was pro with Hoonved-Bottechia for 1981/82 and there was a stage win in Trentino in ’81.
Metauromobili-Pinarello was the sponsor for 1983/84 with his best results coming in ’84 with 12th in La Primavera in the same time as winner Francesco Moser, Kelly and Vanderaerden.
That same year he lead the Mountains competition in the Giro for two weeks, only losing late in the day when he got caught in the crossfire of the Saronni/Fignon feud.
He was with Murella Rossin for 1985 and Veloforma for ’86.
Some nice results – and his racing career had another bonus, he met his wife to be at the Tour of Etna some 30 years ago.
He and his wife ran a hotel in Italy before they moved to England – where his wife is from – and opened the now-famous but dear-departed cycle shop cum café in Oxford.
The café has been let go and Zappi now spends 100% of his time on the road with, ‘his boys.’
He started ‘Zappi racing’ as a cycling club but has developed it into an U23 ‘racing academy’ which competes all over Europe but with a strong leaning towards the Italian scene.
We asked if Italy was the best place to learn the craft of professional cycling?
“It’s by far the hardest place to race with most races having those seven to right minute climbs where you learn to climb – but apart from the Giro della Valle d’Aosta you have to go to France if you want to learn to race on the longer climbs.
“You have to come to Europe to learn to race properly, back in England the fields are too small there are a lot of older guys in the peloton and too many politics.
“But it’s not just Italy, we race all over Europe – Belgium, Spain, Portugal…”
Travel, accommodation, entry fees, equipment and food doesn’t come cheap for a cosmopolitan programme like that – Zappi explains.
“I have sponsors of course but money comes too from the family of the riders.
“We spend 10 months abroad; we race in different countries so there’s accommodation, fuel, supermarkets, entries to pay.
“But the guys are learning the skills of how to live a self sufficient, professional life – training, cooking, cleaning, bike maintenance and how to race.
“For the riders’ families it’s money well spent; for a season, to join the academy it’s £8,000 – but that’s everything, accommodation, food, bikes, travel and entry fees.
“When we’re training rather than travelling or racing I motorpace them twice each week and several times each week I’ll follow their training runs in the team car and assess what specific sessions need to be done – speed work, time trial practice, climbing, it’s a full time job for me.”
And what about James Knox, the academy’s biggest success?
“I could tell five years ago that James has what it takes, he’s determined, lives a stable life, trains well and looks after his equipment.
“He doesn’t focus on the stuff that’s not really important, fancy over-shoes or the latest carbon wheels; he wanted to learn about training and racing.
“He was with Wiggins this year and they have a good calendar.
“But when Rapha Condor, now JLT, asked him to join them on his second year u23, he decided to stay with me, they had the glitter and glamour but not the programme.
“It was me who made the connection for him at QuickStep, I’m lucky because I know many of the guys in the teams, they’re the same age as me.
“It wasn’t just QuickStep; BMC and Cannondale were interested too – but QuickStep tested him and they have belief in him.”
But for every James Knox headed for the World Tour there are many who don’t make it, one day here at VeloVeritas we’ll have to trawl through all the interviews we’ve done over the years with young men trying to ‘break through’ in Flanders, France and Italy – I’ve a feeling at final reckoning it’ll be ‘precious few.’
We asked for Zappi’s take on ‘the ones that got away.’
“Unfortunately, that’s cycling, for every James Know there are a thousand who don’t make it.
“The trouble with many it that they’re brainwashed to think they are better than they really are and when they came to the continent things don’t work out for them.
“My job is to prepare them for the World Tour; some people criticise me because I work my boys hard but it’s a big step up going to U23, you could be racing against guys who are four years older than you, many of them are already signed for pro teams.
“You have to take it a step at a time, first you have to finish the races then you have to look for progression, going from 30th to 28th in the next race – that’s where they need mental support, encouragement.
“It took James Knox three or four months just to finish a race but look at him now.
“It’s natural selection but some who fail have to find someone to blame it on – sometimes that will be me.”
We asked Zappi what the future holds for him?
“I want to carry on with the boys continuing to race abroad; with the backing of Paul Quarterman, our sponsor and DS, we want them to understand what’s needed to be a professional.
“And I want to keep working with our boys; getting better, stronger – and just accept that unfortunately Wiggins may steal them away from us.
“I don’t want us to settle for average!”
If only I was 45 years younger…