To be an Italian cyclist is to be heir to a matchless sporting inheritance — a racing tradition rooted in courage and the embrace of risk.
To contest the Giro d’Italia is to race on routes planned as much for their physical beauty as any logistical concern and to be welcomed by total strangers as son or brother in any of the start or finish towns.
“The Italian guys are looking to the Giro, for sure,” Formolo says, smiling broadly. “I grew up watching it.”
The Giro is so great a part of Italian culture that even the most dedicated cycling fan from beyond Italy’s borders struggles to understand its significance without attending the race. Then, walking through the pink-ribboned streets of any town on the route, braving the snow-blown roads of the mighty Dolomites, or cheering the peloton through the early summer sunshine in some Tuscan hilltop town, the Giro’s embodiment of Italian identity, however nuanced that becomes as the race weaves its way through the various regions, is unmistakable.
To tell Formolo this, however, is to tell him that grass is green or the sky is blue. The Giro’s significance to an Italian cyclist is the same as Augusta to an American golfer, or Wembley Stadium to an English footballer.
With all this in mind, Formolo’s injury-racked campaign at last year’s Giro—his second in Cannondale’s signature green—must have been a bitter disappointment, even if fourth overall in the best young rider competition represents a campaign not entirely without merit.
“The first part of the season was focused on the Giro, no? And I think I was ready to be good. You could see in Romandie, the day before the big crash, I was seventh or eighth on GC, and I’d worn the white jersey. The day after the crash, I was dropped from a bunch of 50 guys and I could see there was something wrong in myself. My right leg was really swollen.
“With the team, I decided to start the Giro anyway, because the first week wasn’t so hard, and I hoped I could recover, but maybe one week wasn’t enough to recover from that particular crash.”
Speaking months after the Giro, he told reporters that he had finished “with my morale in my shoes.” When I put the quote to him, he laughs. The disappointment is behind him. He elaborates, but does so with the air of a man whose sights are fixed firmly on the future.
“I was really sad, because I’d been training really hard, and I was really focused on the Giro. I trained for a long time in the mountains, just focused on that. Just before the show, I had this problem and I think that compromised a lot my first part of the season.”
That was then. The hundredth Giro will offer a race of immeasurable significance to every Italian on the start list, and the young Venetian is looking forward to rolling out in Sardinia this May. He’ll do so with knowledge gained in the service of Andrew Talansky at last yeat’s Vuelta a España.
The “Pit Bull” as Talansky is known to admirers and rivals alike, is not a rider who needs a chaperone, but the service provided by his young Italian team-mate at last year’s Vuelta a España is unlikely to have gone unnoticed.
It says much for Formolo’s character that he counts his service to Talansky at the third of the season’s Grand Tours among the highlights of his 2016 campaign, despite a top five finish at the Tour de Pologne, an unerring barometer of young talent.
“I learned a lot from Andrew, from staying close to him in the crucial moments. I was supporting him, but it was really good for helping me to grow up. Sometimes when you are tired, you blow up, but no, I was there, telling myself, ‘Stay maybe for 10 minutes and I will be better.’
“Staying close to Andrew, I could learn. Sometimes, you can see things only when you are close to the leader. First you get to see, and then you can do. But if you cannot see, you cannot do also.”
There is sometimes more gained in translation than lost, and if Formolo’s English gives him the air of a sage, it is revealing of a young man whose daily goal is to improve.
The area in which Formolo seeks the greatest improvement this season is his performance in the time-trial. The “race of truth”, an exercise in the controlled application of effort, seems almost anathema to the Italian pro, so often a character of impulse and panache.
Formolo describes his challenge in more prosaic terms. It is a matter only of improving his position, he insists, with some justification: the power to weight ratio that makes him such a formidable climber is surely evidence of the innate force of the natural “tester”.
He praises teammate Sebastian Langeveld for his good advice, occasionally offered over the team radio (the vastly experienced Dutchman it seems has all the makings of a sports director).
“I can learn a lot about controlling my efforts during the TT from Sebastian, because he is very professional. He’s been really helpful, talking to me sometimes on the radio, saying, ‘Ok, now focus on your rhythm. Now you’re a little bit over paced. Now you can relax.’
“I’m working on the time-trial a lot. I did a few tests on the TT bike and we’ve tried to fix it [his position]. With the TT bike, there isn’t a rule. Everyone is different. If you look at the first three guys in a time-trial, they have three different positions. You try to find a good position, to find the right feeling. We’ll just keep trying. Some people are lucky and find the right position the first time. Some people have to try 10 times.”
There is an innate optimism about Formolo that is unlikely to be blunted by age. His is a ‘glass half full’ personality, and if a sunny outlook is easily attained at 23, there is a natural effervescence to his personality that makes him a hit with his team-mates, regardless of nationality.
Formolo has spent his entire professional career with Cannondale, and while the team’s ownership has changed, and its roster has become increasingly cosmopolitan, he maintains that it still feels like home. It is typical of his optimistic outlook that in the team’s growing American and Australian cohort he sees greater opportunity to practise his English.
“When I speak with the guys now, I feel comfortable. At meal times, you can joke with each other, or talk about more important things than you can out on the bike. When you do that in training and at meal times, you feel at home.”
Formolo is one of three Italians on Cannondale-Drapac, but when the Giro rolls around he will hope to ride not only for his team-mates but for a nation. His is not a spirit to be crushed by the burden of national expectation, but to soar. He is proud, if relaxed.
He knows what the Giro is about; what it means to his countrymen. He will have seen their joy when he rode alone into Spezia nearly three years ago for the greatest victory of his career. His victory was celebrated on the front page of La Gazetta Dello Sport the following day. For an Italian rider, there are few greater accolades.
Slightly older and much wiser, Formolo will seek to repeat the trick in the Giro’s hundredth edition. Should you meet him, do not waste time by asking for his feelings for the Corsa Rosa. They will be written all over his face.
This story originally appeared on POC’s website.