The seventh floor of an investment bank in the City of London is an unusual location to encounter a former world road race champion, but it’s at the wealth management headquarters of UBS that I come face-to-face with Maurizio Fondriest.
Instantly recognisable as the pro cyclist among a roomful of UBS employees and journalists, Fondriest, still lean and tanned, tells his story in a language acquired rather than studied and in which his meaning, far from being lost in translation, is bolstered by facial expressions and gestures.
His joy at victory in Milan-San Remo, hours after the birth of his first daughter, Vittoria, is writ large in a beaming smile. Similarly, he struggles for a few moments to describe the frustration felt at the constant changes to riding position that accompanied the delivery of new and spare team bikes. He decides finally on ‘stupid’ (he overcame this hindrance by taking a homemade jig to collect his machines).
A look of genuine appreciation crosses his face when an associate relates a recent report in the Italian press in which Bradley Wiggins’ was said to have identified the 1988 world road race champion as the most elegant of bike riders. Fondriest is too modest to have mentioned the complement, but, having been raised, returns it, praising Wiggins’ own position and style on the bike.
Fondriest remains the third youngest rider ever to win the world road race championship, having pulled on the rainbow jersey aged 23. Only Lemond (22) and Armstrong (21) were younger when they won cycling’s most prestigious one day race. He was also twice a UCI World Cup champion (1991 and 1993), latterly in his most successful season, one in which he won Fleche Wallonne, Tirenno-Adriatico, and the Midi Libre as well as the aforementioned victory in La Primavera.
Becoming world road race champion was the greatest victory of his career, he says (Milan-San Remo he describes simply as ‘the best day of my life’), but he sets greater store by his victories in the now-defunct UCI World Cup, bemoaning the lack of a jersey to be worn year round, outside of World Cup events, in the style of the world road race champion. Consistency is a quality equally worthy of reward, he reasons, while recalling frustration at 12 second placed finishes in 1995 (he illustrates his failure to seize victory at that year’s Gent-Wevelgem with a grimace and by holding his thumb and forefinger centimeters apart). Victory in his favourite race, the Tour of Flanders, eluded him and remains his greatest regret.
Fondriest has been in London for two weeks, commentating for the Sky Italia network. He has enjoyed his time in the city and speaks approvingly of the number of road bikes he has seen ridden by ‘riders with backpacks’, a phenomenon distinct from the flat-bar riding commuters of Milan and Rome. He has ridden each morning in Regent’s Park, close to his hotel, and in Richmond Park, where the sight of deer just 15km from the City has clearly left an impression.
On the Olympics, he feels Elia Viviani was unwise to commit to the road race and the omnium, and belives Italy had missed a trick by not selecting Moreno Moser for the road race (Moser, incidentally is Fondriest’s tip for the world road race championship in Limburg this September).
The rise of Great Britain as a cycling superpower could not have been foreseen during his time in the peloton, he says, but feels other nations must now learn from British Cycling’s success, specifically the academy system that has allowed performance director and Team Sky principal, Dave Brailsford, and his colleagues to look beyond the family networks Fondriest says have traditionally dominated Italian cycling.
I ask him to identify the contemporary peloton’s Maurizio Fondriest. He deflects the question with a smile. Who then has impressed him most? This time his answer is direct: Peter Sagan, the 22-year-old Slovak whose astonishing tally of stage wins in UCI WorldTour races this season has made him the star of the Italian Liquigas-Cannondale team. Moser has the potential to win a Grand Tour, he adds, but not for at least five years.
The Fondriest bicycle brand, founded with his brother, Francesco, has occupied Maurizio’s time since retirement in 1998. The sudden seriousness of expression when his presentation turns to the machinery that surrounds him attests to the passion with which he pursues his business.
Time in the saddle nowadays is spent considering ways in which a bicycle may be improved. He illustrates the process by pointing to the integrated seat clamp and squared off seat post on the TF3 1.2, a design he created in preference to the integrated, cut-to-fit seat mast recommended by his R&D team. The appearance of a similar design on Scott’s Foil range he accepts as a complement.
Once his innovations have been turned into prototypes he completes ‘blind’ tests, refusing the offer of ‘numbers’ from R&D, preferring to assess the success or failure of his designs from the saddle. I put it to him that his insistence on his personal approval has parallels with Chris Boardman’s similarly hands-on approach. Is there a substitute for the insight of a professional, one who has relied on the bicycle as a tool of his trade? He shrugs. Pleasure in the bicycle is the guiding principle, he insists: he rides and tests because it is his passion to do so.
Outside, Fondriest poses with a range of his company’s bikes, including his personal TF Zero. A clue to its ownership comes from the 130mm handlebar stem. The handlebars are, he admits, now positioned 1cm higher than during his racing days; the 56.5cm top tube 50mm shorter.”For now, it’s ok,” he smiles.
What does he see as the next development in road bike design? Will the aerodynamic concealment of brake calipers witnessed on Ridley’s Noah and Trek’s Madone 7 become standard? Or is the long-discussed implementation of disc brakes for road bikes the next big thing? He smiles. Disc brakes are not a necessity for road bikes, he agrees, any more than electronic shifting, but much of the pleasure in cycling comes from ownership of the latest advancements.
When he discusses the development of his business to include Asian manufacture (all Fondriest bikes are designed, tested, and assembled in Italy; only the flagship TF0 is manufactured there) it is with reference to the demise of the artisans who made the steel and aluminium frames on which he competed. I put it to him that he regrets the shift in technology. Serious again, he replies with a racing parallel. Comparing past and contemporary manufacturing processes would be like comparing De Vlaeminck and Boonen, he suggests; both great, but ultimately incomparable.