Flavio Zappi plays down his own career on the bike but in a time and place where it was hard to get a pro contract and then sometimes even harder to achieve contract renewal after one season, if the results weren’t there or your face didn’t fit, he rode numerous seasons at the highest levels of Italian cycle sport.

Flavio Zappi
Flavio Zappi finished 12th in the Tour of Lombardy in 1984.

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 turned professional with Hoonved-Bottechia for seasons 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 held the lead in 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, finishing an eventual second in the competition.

He was with Murella Rossin for 1985 and Veloforma for ’86.

But nowadays he’s better known as the man behind the ‘Zappi Racing Team’ based in La Bella Italia where young ‘Anglo’ men can serve a proper apprenticeship with a view to moving up to Pro Team or World Tour level like his boy, Englishman James Knox – now an integral part of the mighty Deceuninck QuickStep team – has done. 

We last spoke to Flavio in 2017 but with two of my fellow Scots on the team for 2021 I felt a chat with the now 60 year-old Italian was overdue…

As a man who always has his boys on a healthy diet of plenty fresh vegetables and fish I kicked off by asking the obvious question…

Have you still got the boys eating them sardines, Flavio?

“Actually, they can have whatever fish they want – we’re next to the fish market here in Cesenatico on the Adriatic, but they have to get used to real world fish with bones in them, not those fillets they’re used to back home!” 

How many years is that you’ve run the team now?

“It’s 10 years now.

“Originally I raced with them but the programme was much smaller than it is now.”

Flavio Zappi
Flavio Zappi runs a great team for the young guys. Photo©supplied

And with Holdsworth providing the hardware again?

“Yes, over the years we’ve built up a good relationship with the company principal of Planet X (the parent company of Holdsworth) Dave Loughran but his plan is that the company will become employee owned so we’re uncertain of what will happen in the future.

“Dave likes what we do at Zappi Racing, the passion, the 80’s vibe, the Italian connection…”

How many riders this year?

“Originally we had 12 for this year but lost one over the winter and then in January I began to worry about the lockdowns and travel restrictions so I reached out to people I know and we’ve actually added two guys from the Caribbean and two from New Zealand as well.”

And two Scots, Hamish Strachan and Matthias Barnett?

“That’s right. Hamish reminds me of Calum Johnston, he’s a very light rider, in the low 50 kg range, but very passionate. I think it will be difficult for him to shine straight away but I think given a few seasons he can get the results.

“Matthias was a British Criterium Champion as an U16 but since then has had university and there have been crashes too – but he’s here to make a fresh start. 

“Calum has moved up to the Caja Rural Seguros RGA team in Spain for this season, the percorso there will suit him and he’s generating 20/30 more watts now… watch out for him this year!”

Paul Double – who our readers will remember for his medal in the CTT Hill Climb Champs – has moved on to Italian continental team, MGK VIS VPM; he came back to you last year after a year with top Italian team Colpack, didn’t he?

“He was fourth with us in the Tour of Bulgaria last year and he moves up to continental this year, yes.

“His season with Colpack was a frustrating one; I don’t think they gave him the best training advice to suit his physiology…”

And your man James Knox continues to flourish with Deceuninck Quickstep.

“‘Knoxy’ I call him; he was strong from the beginning. He had his problems but overcame them and look at how he rode for Almeida in the Giro last year.

“He still phones me after his races to discuss his rides.”

Flavio Zappi
Flavio Zappi has seen several of his riders progress to World Tour level. Photo©supplied

When is the team’s first race, Flavio?

“It’s Sunday March 14th in Piedmont, a National Calendar race over nine laps of a challenging circuit with 200 starters.”

[The Zappi team finished one rider but it was their first race of the year against big Italian u23 outfits like Colpack Ballan and Zalf Euromobil – both are pro teams in all but name – who have been racing since February. The 148 kilometre Trofeo Fubine La Porta Del Monferrato went to 23 year-old Simone Piccolo of Viris Vigevano from Alessio Martinelli of the inevitable Colpack Ballan squadra, ed.]

How is Covid affecting things in Italy?

“Some parts of the country are on full lockdown but we’re allowed to race provided we follow strict protocols including how we present ourselves at race HQ.

“And there’s a 14 day quarantine period in effect now – you can’t just fly in and race right away.

“It’s hard for organisers here but they have the passion and determination to make it work. I think there’s more will to make races happen here than perhaps there is in the UK?” 

Flavio Zappi
Flavio Zappi gets great support from several reliable sponsors. Photo©supplied

The ’90 day rule’ where UK riders can only spend 90 out of 180 days in Europe has seen you very vocal on social media.

“I’m pissed off about it, there’s little interest from people, particularly the World Tour guys – they were young riders once. This is going to restrict riders who can’t just fly in and out as they wish from learning their craft.

“I’m asking the guys who have won Grand Tours and Olympic medals to reach out to their many social media followers and bring this to people’s attention. 

“If you want to stay in the UK and race time trials against guys the same age as you and me then that’s fine, but if you want to learn properly about the game then you have to be here or in Belgium.

“To submit a petition to the government needs 10,000 signatures but we’re still short of that target and we need everyone to sign so this problem can get the attention it requires at the highest level.”

What were the highlights of that strange 2020 ‘Covid’ season for you?

“Just the fact that we managed to race!

“The organisers of the Baby Giro did such a good job in getting the race to run – and then of course we had Calum in 12th spot overall, our best ever finish in the race.

“And the good news is that we’ve been accepted for the race again this season. It runs from 3rd to 12th June over 10 stages and we’re very excited about the prospect.” 

Flavio Zappi
Flavio Zappi (l) enjoys his life in Italy and being Italian. Photo©supplied

What keeps you doing what you do, Flavio?

“There’s the love of my nation… the weather, the food, the culture… and then there’s the fact that I was one of those young guys once.

“If they’re left to their own devices in the UK then they’ll perhaps sign up for ‘on-line’ coaching but that’s more about someone selling a product than what’s necessarily best for them.

“And whilst I hate to sound ‘cheesy’ it is so beautiful when one of my boys does something special…”

Mental note: get VeloVeritas out to la Bella Italia when normality returns and spend some time with Sen. Zappi and his boys. 

With thanks and best wishes for the season to Flavio and the team. We’ll be running interviews with Hamish Strachan and Matthias Barnett soon.