Is Italian cycling in the doldrums?

This comes, of al things, out of a Twitter interaction with Daniel Friebe, of Mountain High and Eddy Merckx: The Cannibal fame. Friebe posted:

Italian teams have of course been in the news in recent years, firstly for the fact that, with the incoming Lampre Merida becoming an Abu Dhabi team, there is not one team in the top tier of the sport registered in Italy.

Secondly, this meant it was widely expected that RCS Sport, the organisers of the 2017 Giro Italia, (the centenary edition no less – the second after 2009, thanks to years lost to World Wars) would account for this by using the wildcard system to invite as many Italian teams as possible. We were guaranteed at least one Italian squad – Bardiani CSF had a place thanks to their victory in the 2016 Copa Italia competition. There were three places up for grabs, and three more Italian teams in contention:  Wilier-Selle Italia, Nippo-Vini Fantini and Androni Giocattoli. Surely they would be in?


Gazprom d0 ride Colnago, which may have helped them secure entry.


No. RCS chose Gazprom-Rusvelo, who, in fairness to them, did win a stage through  Aleksandr Foliforov in 2016, CCC Sprandi, a team mostly known for riding in orange and keeping Davide Rebellin in employment, and Willier-Selle Italia, who have Filippo Pozzato.


Bardiani will of course be easy to spot, as usual.


This leaves the Giro with just two Italian registered teams – the lowest, well, ever (at least if my hastily assembled graph from 1980 onwards, following Friebe’s convention that San Marino counts as Italy)

It is worth noting that a team’s registration is not necessarily a good indicator of their identity – the original Tinkoff outfit was registered in Italy, despite being essentially Russian, whilst Bardiani have previously been registered in Ireland, which I’m sure had nothing to do with tax…


RCS have argued that teams are too reliant on the Giro for their exposure, and point out that they have been given entry some of their portfolio of other races. But with a sense of Italian cycling being in crisis, and the year being the centenary of a race that has oft been sentimental in its patriotism, surely this was the year to ignore commercial interests such as Poland perhaps being the Grande Potenza destination in 2018 (CCC are Polish) and go with home teams?


Nibali wins his home Monument, ‘Il Lombardia’ in patriotic style


A question for another day perhaps, but the data certainly suggests that Italian cycling is in deep trouble. Vincenzo Nibali has applied a veneer of respectability to them recently, taking their first Monument win in seven years when he won in Lombardy in 2016, and has topped up their Grand Tour wins. But at the Giro, there are issues.


At least Italy won the ProTour, through, er, Di Luca…never mind…


As the teams graph shows, the drop off in Italian teams since 2005 has been severe – having previously never been under 50% (admittedly including San Marino as Italy allows this stat to work), it plummetted to below 30%, with the newly inaugurated ProTour (now the WorldTour) requiring the invitation of teams outside the Italian peninsula. So, as always, blame the WorldTour for cycling’s woes.


With fewer teams in the Giro, the pipeline for success has been closed down. Subsequently, the number of Italian GC contenders has also seemingly collapsed, hidden behind the successes of Nibali and Aru. Diego Rosa has been talked up as a potential successor, but there is little to suggest there is any major talent pool behind the incumbents. This was exemplified in 2016 – Italy had just one man in the top ten of the Giro, the winner no less, but this hid the derth behind. Internationalisation has taken its toll of course, but still, the drop off from just ten years ago is startling.


At least the percentage of the race Italians have spent in the lead looks healthy, but Nibali’s decimation of the 2013 race skews results somewhat.Without that, there has been quite a drop off since 2011.


Note: This excludes team time trials, as all members of the team aren’t necessarily Italian. Liquigas, for instance, won the 4th stage of the 2010 Giro.


Italy always used to be guaranteed a good chunk of the lead thanks to the fact they basically always won the first or second stage of the Giro. But recent years have seen that trend slip back, with Italians having to wait until deeper into the first week, or even the second, as in 2010, to see an Italian victory.


Even stage wins, long the banker of being Italian, are beginning to dry up. Italy holds the record for stage wins at Grand Tours with 1,714, double the total of France and Belgium, the next best two nations. But its numbers have been dwindling in recent years.


An Italian win used to be a guarentee thanks to it’s tradition of producing fastmen.


No longer are the Italians able to count on a Cipollini or a Petacchi, guaranteed to bring in the sprint wins. Italian sprinting is at a bit of a nadir – Elia Viviani is the only man to have won a sprint in the first week of a Grand Tour since Alessandro Petacchi at the 2011 Giro, and he has won precisely on (Matteo Trentin’s stage seven win at the 2014 Tour wasn’t a bunch sprint). Daniele Bennati has won at the Vuelta, but he’s no spring chicken anymore.

So, a dwindling pool of teams, fewer capable grand tour riders, less days in the lead and fewer stage wins. Of course, if Nibali and Aru trounce the ever growing pool of talent signing up to race the Giro, then this will all be forgotten. But the evidence suggests that Italian cycling, especially at its flagship event, could do with all the help it can get.


5 thoughts on “Is Italian cycling in the doldrums?

  1. Uhm… it would be interesting to have a look to similar stats for the TdF and French riders. French cycling is globally rather healthy, but I suspect that, despite the recent exploits by Pinot and Bardet, the national riders aren’t exactly dominating their home race.
    Italian cycling is indeed facing a crisis, when compared to some periods of the past, but I’m not sure this metrics are totally spot-on.
    The Giro was a “worse” (so to say) race in the first half of the 2000s, but the Italian domination it went on showing wasn’t precisely a sign of great health for the national cycling movement.
    Anyway, great job, very interesting.

    1. A bit of a straw man argument on the French give they’re not addressed – I did have a brief look at doing a similar thing for France and Spain, but it wouldn’t really work for France due to the Tour’s internationalism going back considerably further than the Giro.

      It is indeed arguable that the reason Italians packed the top echelons of the Giro in the early noughties was because no one else came to their national Tour, but they were also winning sprints with Petacchi and Cipollini, classics with Bettini et all – they won 17 Monuments in the 90s, 18 in the 00’s, but just one since 2008. So they were certainly doing something right – it just doesn’t seem to have carried through to this generation.

      1. In the 90s they were probably doing… something *wrong* 😉
        I’m joking, that’s a factor but I never thought it’s the most decisive one, although it’s got its weight.

        However, there’s no doubt that the last 20 years of Italian cycling have been plagued with problems, mainly due to a lack of perspective by its instititutions, besides the economic factor. But institutional woes are by far the crucial element.

        All the same, what I’m trying to point out is that the data you chose to look at are also *negatively* affected by the health of the Giro – which – albeit not always directly – is *positively* related with Italian’s cycling health in the middle term.
        Thus, the set of data ends up responding to at least two different phenomena, which are partially contradictory.
        The need to differentiate between them is what prompted me to give a look to France: and, even if it’s true that the French always had less of a lion’s share in their home race when compared to the Italian situation, yet, several times in the past the two GTs showed quite a similar level of internationalisation (by memory I’d say the start of the 50s, 70s or the late 80s). It’s far from being an ongoing linear phenomenon, or anything you could give for granted.

        I’m not convinced, either, by what you comment about the results in the Classics. Between twenty and ten years ago, Italian riders were doing way better in the Classics, sure, but let’s have a look to their performances in GTs, away from a pretty much declined Giro where there was little real competition from other countries… In Spain or France, you just find the odd GC rider barely looming in the low part of the top ten (in the best case), until Basso came of age.
        It’s not like things are that impressive now, but Italy has started to have riders which can win or podium a GT outside their home country, besides a broader variety of top-ten occasional visitors. Which, again, doesn’t mean much: in a five or six years time, I suspect Italians might be winning Classics again, while disappearing from GT’s podia. It’s also a matter of… cycles.

        Note that I’m not defending that this means things are going well for Italian cycling’s movement – not at all. It’s just that I suspect that the main factor currently influencing the Giro’s trend is its way stronger international flavour.

        The first half of the noughties was just tragic.
        Let’s look at the first part of the 80s, where you start your analysis: it was another moment of *autocracy*, the economy of the sport allowed many teams and riders to live on the Giro only, and the race rewarded them with favourable courses.
        Anyway, at the end of that decade the Giro started to become more international once again (I think it can be noticed in your graphs) – but that didn’t imply a crisis within the movement. On the contrary, when sort of a generational gap was walked over, Italy produced one of the best generation of GT riders ever. Hence the growing presence of home riders in the Giro’s top charts, out of their own superiority more than because of lack of international stars. Countercheck? Look outside Italy. What about Italian TdF GC presence in the 80s when we compare it to the 90s?
        That remained more or less true until the end of the decade, then they still keep an apparently similar winning presence, but, now, that’s because the race has lost quality!

        I don’t know if you sort of get my point. Your graphs show similar trends in very different periods, because the international appeal of the Giro weighs in, too, and it’s a factor which produces a countereffect on the other variable you’re interested in. What might look an Italian decline at the end of the ’80s was really the premise to the following good period, which didn’t depend anymore on lack of internationalism as much as on high quality of Italian riders.

        If you don’t cross the data with other indicators, your interpretation might just go the wrong way.

        To weigh how much your metrics are really defining for the variable you’re interested in, you should check them against, say, the GC results of other strong countries which have been undermined (so to say, it’s not the right word, really!) by the presence of a greater number of competitive countries.
        Let’s say, what about Belgium’s GC results in the last five decades or so? And I’d pick Belgium as a countercheck because their movement is in very fine health, as you could say by the quantity of young talents they’re producing (best indicator, IMHO). And… did you say Classics? Have a rolling average of frequence of Belgian victories in Flanders and Roubaix along history.
        Yet, I wouldn’t dare to say that they’re “declining”, is more of a sum of factors.

  2. That’s probably fair – obviously a lot more analysis could be done into this, this is very much only scratching at the veneer of the issue, extrapolating a tweet!
    An interesting question to arise would be what exactly constitutes a “strong generation” from a certain country – you could always argue that just looking at winners is too shallow, as it doesn’t look at depth of talent. Once you remove the big names, everyone starts to look quite weak, especially given the rampant specialisation these days.
    I’ll have a look at the Spanish and French equivalents – see what comes up 🙂

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