The Old Man and the Sport: Davide Rebellin
Here is a man who who started racing bikes in 1981. Who turned pro in 1992. Who was already late in his career when he lifted the Olympic silver medal, only to have it stripped for doping, plunging him into a legal dogfight against the entire weight of the Italian government. As persona non grata in the upper echelons of the sport, he kept plugging away in the lower ranks, just kept riding his bike. He will be 49 next year, but, rather than slowing down, he is pushing to try and get back into that most sacred of all Italian bike races—the Giro d’Italia. He wears his years lightly. There is no visible slowness or stiffness to his step. Forty years on the bike have been kind to him. There is an innocence, a simplicity, to him that is hard not to find endearing. He is quiet, softly spoken, and patient. As he sips his coffee, his eyes sparkle, as he dreams about trying to win a place once more in the ‘beautiful’ races…
With burnout becoming an ever-bigger issue for the peloton, how have you avoided that trap?
I was lucky enough to follow my passion. I have always done this sport with love and had fun doing it. Doing challenging workouts has never weighed on me. Racing for me has always been a real pleasure. I’ve always done it with passion. And then, in recent years, after a certain age, you need to pay more attention to everything, because the body changes, and so maybe I eat more carefully, rest more. With experience, I have learned to train better. In my opinion, age limits are in the head. If you put a limit and say “Ah, I am 40 years old, so I am old,” then yes, you have no more hope. However, if you say, “ No, I have 40 years of experience, and I feel good,” it helps you keep going forwards.
What keeps you going? Is it desire to win, the competition, or just being on the bike?
A bit of everything. My passion comes from my desire for new challenges and the desire to be there. Every time I put a number on my back, it’s a different emotion, whether it’s a small race or a big race. I have the desire to always give the best of myself and to prepare myself to give my best, and to see where I can get, because I think there are no limits. I think I can still win a few races, when the course and the situation allows it. I also do not want just to be in the group with a number, but to do something. I want to give a message to sports people, saying that, no matter your age, if you want to, you can still do beautiful things. I meet riders who do these gran fondos, these amateur races, who say, “It’s great to see him doing this; I too am 50 years old, and to see him be able to do that means that I can give my best, and I can do well.”
How has the sport evolved during your career?
Racing has changed so much. The technology on the bikes, on the clothing, it has all changed a lot. The training now has changed too. Once, only a few people knew how to train, how to prepare themselves. Now all the professionals know how. They have an athletic trainer, a dietician, even a psychologist. And this means that the average level in the peloton has gone up a lot. There are always the champions who have a little something more, but the other riders are all at a much higher level than 15 years ago, or 20 years ago.
Do you never get bored of riding your bike?
No, for me to head out and do a six- or seven-hour bike ride is always fun. I still love to discover new places. For example, this past week I was in Gran Canaria. It’s sunny, and there are the mountains, the sea, so it is like a vacation for me. It’s a holiday, where I do five or six hours of training every day. I have had the good fortune, especially in recent years, to have raced in different teams, and have seen new realities, like in Indonesia, in Iran, in Africa. They are places I had never seen before, and I got to see them by riding my bike.
Is having fun the key to your longevity?
Yes, for sure. If it wasn’t fun, I would have stopped before. Now I do it more for fun. It is not an economic issue or a matter of living, just riding to have fun, for pleasure. It still feels so good.
Have you thought about the point when you will say, “ok, enough”?
I have not yet thought about it, especially because I want to finish in a more prominent team, maybe in a bigger and more beautiful race, that allows me to finish in beauty. So long as I am fine and my body, the legs, support me, and my heart too, I go on. I do not place limits on myself. It might also be the end of this year that I stop racing. Let’s see. I have no limits.
Are you trying to race the Giro in 2020?
There was a project with a Hungarian team that would have launched next year, but in the end this project failed. This Hungarian team had the chance to participate in the Giro d’Italia, because Hungary is included in the Giro d’Italia next year—it starts there. But we are now trying another solution to possibly realise this dream, and I hope we can achieve it. I don’t know. Let’s see. Otherwise, I have other teams that would like to have me. They are still small teams. If I want to race with them, I can carry on like that.
With the benefit of hindsight, how do you look back on your suspension and being stripped of your Olympic medal?
It was definitely the most difficult period for me. But everything you encounter makes you stronger. What happened forced me to reinforce myself, to give something more, to grow as a person, a man too. I was acquitted. This whole story is not really clear, and in any case I was acquitted by the Italian government. For the medal, I still didn’t get it back. I could make another judicial appeal against the Olympic Committee, but I don’t know if I will. Even if I never touch the medal again, it still feels like it is mine. Anyway, at this point in my career I understand this all helped me grow. Especially as a man, as a cyclist. Perhaps this is the reason why I am still here now. Maybe if I had carried on with my career the way it was before I would have gotten tired of it earlier, because I would certainly have had a more mentally demanding career, because in the last few years I have not done any of the big races. I was riding in small teams with smaller programmes. But the stimulus and the desire to return one day to a great team in a good project and be able to end my career in beautiful races like Liège-Bastogne-Liège or Fleche Wallonne is still there. Those races have always been special for me.
If you could talk to yourself at 21, what advice would you give him?
I would have trained a little differently when I was young. I was exaggerating, perhaps. I was afraid of doing too little and instead did too much, and went to the races too tired. That is the advice I would share for training and nutrition. But then also with experience, I would tell myself to have more enthusiasm for what I was doing—I was very closed off back then.
Would you say you have a stronger passion for riding your bike today?
Yes, yes, because now that I take it more as a fun thing to do, there is less pressure. It is something that makes me feel good, that I like, that gives me emotions that I didn’t appreciate before. Now I have more fun than I used to, and I appreciate what I see more. Before I was focused only on the bike. I could only see the road, without appreciating the mountains. Instead of appreciating the places I saw, I focused on my work. But I love the people I meet, I appreciate what I see, and feel gratitude for this. It is a different way of seeing more things. I’m more mature, and I try to express it. Before I kept everything inside. I never spoke. I saw very little. Now, I try to express what I see, the emotions I feel, and try to smile at people from different walks of life. Maybe if I had done that before, I would also be liked more by others. I could even have helped more. I was surrounded by people I could perhaps have helped out.
Who was the strongest competitor you have seen?
You know, I’ve seen so many generations of cyclists, from Bugno’s generation, Cappucci, Cipollini, also Indurain. What can you say about that generation of mine, that of Marco Casagrande? Of my main rivals, I look at Bettini, but I also think Valverde. Why Valverde? He is still winning, and for me he is the racer I admire the most. He is present all year round, he wins the single-day races, but he also wins in stage races, and you can see that he loves what he does. Yeah, I think he is the racer I admire the most from my career.