I started cycling a few years ago when I was out of action with a back injury and cycling was the only sport I could do. Initially it was part of my rehab, but soon it became a way to stay in shape in the off-season too.
Then in my last year with Perugia I had to have a hernia operation and I was forced to retire from football. Every cloud and all that – all of a sudden, I had more time and I could dedicate some of it to my bike.
I’d always liked cycling and I always admired the pros for the sacrifices they made. My brother, Andrea, was already a keen cyclist and he’d always told me what an amazing feeling it could be to ride a bike. Like most Italian kids, I’d grown up watching the Tour of Italy – the Giro – and the Tour de France at a time when the rivalry between the two leading Italian riders of the day, Giuseppe Saronni and Francesco Moser, pretty much split Italy down the middle. But I was always too preoccupied with football to get really interested.
That started to change when I was at Marseille in 1998, and Marco Pantani, an ardent Milan fan, did the Giro-Tour double. I’d met Pantani at Juve; he was prematurely bald, I was prematurely grey, so we got on famously. It was a tragedy when he died [of a cocaine overdose] in 2004. Marco was a legend.
The fact that I was racing on Pantani’s home roads around Rimini made my first win, this January, extra special. The bunch was together for the first 100km, then I broke in a group of 11 with about 20 kilometres to go. I chased down an attack 2km from the line, and countered on my own on a short uphill section. I rode the last kilometre at about 45km/h and crossed the line well clear, with my arms aloft. Unfortunately they make cycling jerseys too tight to replicate my old shirt-over-the-head goal celebration!
I couldn’t believe what joy I felt. You don’t expect such an intense feeling at my age. Now I want more: this season, my brother, a few mates and I have started a team – ‘Umbria Cycling Team’ – and I’m really looking forward to us getting some good more results and enjoying ourselves. Last week my brother and I finished 14th and 15th out of a couple of thousand, some of whom were top amateurs and ex-pros, in a gran fondo – a mass participation, long distance race – in Emilia Romagna. We have a sponsor, Passoni, who supplies us with state-of-the-art, multi-thousand-euro bikes, and even a Chrysler service vehicle. It’s almost like a pro team.
I ride almost every day, usually in the hills around my house in Umbria. Today I was supposed to do three hours, but my wife left me with our three kids and I couldn’t go out. I ride upwards of 20,000km a year. I often train with Daniele Bennati, one of the world’s top riders, as well as another couple of pros based near me, Eros Capecchi and Giampaolo Caruso.
Last year I went with Caruso to the Swiss border to climb two of the most famous and hardest mountain passes in Italy – the Passo dello Stelvio and the Mortirolo. The Stelvio is nearly 3,000m above sea level, and, at the top, we were riding between two vast walls of snow. The jubilation I felt at getting to the summit wasn’t dissimilar to winning the Champions League. It’s the same rush.
As a rider, I’m pretty strong on the flat and on short power climbs, but not great in the high mountains. In terms of riding style, I’m similar to the two riders dominating the single-day Classics on the pro scene at the moment, the Swiss Fabian Cancellara and the Belgian Tom Boonen. When I train with the pros, I’m OK on the flat but they leave me for dead on the climbs. I certainly don’t think I made the wrong career choice – I would never have dreamed of achieving what I did in football, and the joy that brought me was indescribable.
As you’d expect, I get recognised a fair bit by the other riders. Everyone’s really friendly, though. I’ll be chugging along and all of a sudden I’ll hear ‘Ravanelli, was football not hard enough for you?! Why are you putting yourself through all this pain?’ They’re right, too: I suffer a lot more on a bike than I ever did on the football pitch.
I suppose my dream now is to win a gran fondo, but it may well be an impossible dream; as I said, you often get ex-pros in those races. I just want to carry on enjoying myself and, of course, steering clear of danger, which is no foregone conclusion these days.
As for watching sport, if it’s a game like the Arsenal-Liverpool Champions League quarter-final I summarised for Sky Italia, I’d take the football over cycling; but if it’s a boring nil-niller, I’d rather watch a big single-day Classic like the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix.
I’m studying for my coaching badges at the moment, and, when I’ve qualified, one day I’d love to train Middlesbrough. I suppose my only worry would be the North East weather and the havoc it’d wreak with my cycling!
From the August 2008 issue of FourFourTwo.