The last time we spoke to Callum Johnston he’d just completed his first season in Italy under the tutelage of that colourful gentleman, Flavio Zappi.

This year Callum has stepped up a level on squadra Zappi and was Scotland’s sole representative in the ‘Baby’ Giro d’Italia – a race which boasts on it’s role of honour names like Carlos Betancur, Danilo Di Luca, Gilberto Simoni and Marco Pantani.

Last year it was classy Russian Pavel Sivakov (who we interviewed here on VeloVeritas, ed.) who took the honours and is now with Team Sky; this year it was Russia’s Aleksandr Vlasov (Gazprom) who held the last bouquet.

We caught up with Callum after his ride to get the insider story of what is, along with the Tour de L’Avenir, the biggest u23 stage race in the world.

Callum Johnston
Callum follows the centre line in the Baby Giro time trial. Photo©supplied

You’re a full time Zappi man again for season 2018 and still only 19 years-old?

“Yes, I’m not 20 until November; right now I’m having a bit of a rest before our next big event, the Valle d’Aosta stage race.”

How much time did you have to prepare for the Baby Giro?

“Flavio selected the team on form a month before so we had plenty of time to prepare; we did some stage recce’s which was helpful and also specific blocks of training – endurance, sprint, time trial.

“There was a prologue and a time trial so the latter was very useful.”

Tell us about the race please.

“There are 10 stages – you’ll only see nine stage numbers listed but there was nine 9 (a) and (b) and there’s no rest day.

“It’s pretty brutal, you have all these lads chasing the same dream – to get a professional contract – so every day was ‘full gas.’

“There was a prologue TT then Stage One was for the sprinters, Stage Two was a mountain top finish, Stage Three was a sprinter day, Stages Four and Five were mountains, Stage Six was ‘medium mountains’, Stage Seven and Eight were mountains, Stage Nine (a) was flat then Stage Nine (b) was a 22 K mountain time trial.”

Callum Johnston
Photo©supplied

Who was Zappi’s ‘man’ for the race?

“Our strongest guy was Paul Double, he’d been showing good form in previous races and was top 25 on GC late in the race but had to quit before the last day due to illness.

“There were three of us Zappis left at the end, we lost the rest to crashes and illness.”

A friend of mine was soigneuring on the race, he said the stage starts were insane?

“There was one day we averaged 54 kph for the first hour; there’s only so many teams riding for the GC whilst the rest want to get into the breakaway – and it’s so very competitive to get in the escape of the day.

“Stage Two was carnage, the first half was flat before we went into the mountains and we were doing 60 kph, I’ve never experienced anything like it. “

Lots of climbing?

“Stage Two wasn’t so bad gradient wise but it dragged up for like 60/70 K!

“Stage Eight was the Queen Stage to Monte Grappa; that was hors cat. and the hardest of the race – but there were loads of climbs every day, throughout the race.”

Callum Johnston
The Baby Giro has a deserved reputation as one of the hardest u23 races in the world. Photo©supplied

Your best day?

“I’ve learned that I’m a stage race rider, I get stronger as the race goes on.

“I thrived on the last few stages; on the Monte Grappa stage I was well into the first half of the field and on Stage Nine (a) I was 25th.”

And the worst day?

“Stage Six on paper didn’t look so bad but there was torrential rain and it became very cold.

“I got caught in a split with two team mates and we used up an awful lot of energy to get back on.”

What was the Media and crowd interest like?

“With Zappi we ride a lot of UCI races so we’re used to well promoted, big races.

“But this was a different level, not like anything I’d experienced before, with a prologue, big climbs and lots of support from the local fans – they really ‘go for it’ and it was a super-satisfying experience.”

What were the digs and grub like?

“Not too bad for the first couple of nights but sometimes we were three in a room so that was a bit cramped – but the meals were good, breakfast and dinner.

“I hadn’t realised how much food you need to consume on a stage race – you had to get up early to get the rice down you!”

Callum Johnston
Photo©supplied

How has recovery been?

“Good, I came home to Scotland after it and was pretty tired and had to catch up on sleep.

“I had a couple of days off then just went out and enjoyed the bike, doing some café runs but then got back into the routine of training and watching my diet.”

Next up?

“Is the Valle D’Aosta stage race, my training is geared towards that.

“I feel good, I’ve benefited from riding the Baby Giro for sure.

“I have a bit of a break after Aosta (where Callum would finish 50th behind Astana City’s Vadim Pronkiy, ed.) then I’m back to the Zappi team house in Varese until the end of the season.

“We have a good programme of UCI and national Elite races in Italy until the end of the season, including the u23 Tour of Lombardy.”

And do you notice a difference in yourself from last season?

“I’m heavier this year, around three kilos – that’s down to growing and building muscle and I do feel a lot stronger.”

The Baby Giro, Lombardy, the man is living the dream, we’ll get back in touch with Callum later in the year to learn how his second year in La Bella Italia ended. Meanwhile, Forza Callum!