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Michele Acquarone: Giro, Italian races and the future of cycling

In the two years he spent at the head of the Giro d’Italia, Michele Acquarone helped the Corsa Rosa develop and become increasingly popular, not only among fans, but also among the top riders, some of the biggest names in the peloton coming at the start with the objective of winning the prestigious maglia rosa. Thus, the Giro has had many spectacular moments that helped, just as the organizers wanted to, its aura of being the hardest race in the world in the most beautiful place in the world.

Assisi, Passo dello Stelvio, Matera or Tre Cime di Lavaredo are just some of the moments of reference when speaking about Giro d’Italia in the last two years, moments that are due not only to the main actors, but also to former director Michele Acquarone, whose goal was to make the Giro an internationally recognized brand, a race for fans around the world, not just for the Italians.

If he succeeded or not, this is a thing only the supporters of the race can say. What is certain is that Michele Acquarone changed the typology of a Grand Tour director, choosing to be in permanently contact with the public, to communicate with fans through social media and ask them to have their say on the Giro d’Italia route. How was the experience of these last couple of years for him? What does he think will be the future of the race and the future of cycling? Find out in the following interview.

– Mister Acquarone, what were your goals when you became director of the Giro d’Italia?

My goal since the first day, September 1st, 2008, when I’ve become Managing Director at RCS Sport and then with even greater force since September 1st, 2011 when I’ve taken over the Giro (and cycling) was twofold: on one hand, to grow the Giro d’Italia and bring it to the level of the Tour de France, and on the other, work with the entire cycling family to developour sport globally and bring it to the level of bigger sports (tennis, golf, motorsports). In both cases we are talking about ambitious goals, but certainly within our reach. I’m sorry to be stopped in the middle of a job that brought big benefits on both fronts.

– Two years later, you can draw a line and look back at your work. What are your conclusions?

The Giro has made tremendous strides and today is loved and followed all over the world, but we are still far from the Tour de France that still is for fans and for many riders the main and only goal of the season. If in 2008 the ratio was 10 to 1 Tour – Giro, today is 5 to 1. I guess we’re halfway there. My personal goal was to get to 10 to 8 in 2020. Now we have to see if the Giro will still have the ability and the courage to continue to work as we have done until now. Much rather disappointing results were on the the other front, growth of cycling compared to other sports. The interests of the various parties are still too fragmented and lacking common goals. The lingering shadow of doping, the totally absurd World Tour regulation and an anachronistic calendar are the main antagonists of a discipline that is struggling to attract new fans. To date, the only event that manages to be stronger than all of those problems is the Tour de France. Everyone should be grateful to the Tour. For many years the Tour de Frace has been able to pull an entire sports movement, but today if we want to go on we need to change in a structural way the basics of professional cycling. I’m not talking about revolution, but just a few targeted changes.

– During this period, what were for you the best moments of the race?

The Dutch and Danish Giro stages were incredible. The passion and enthusiasm of millions of fans who embraced the Giro for the first time is hard to describe in words. As it is the emotion I felt on the Zoncolan in 2010, a beautiful day that framed an unforgettable Giro. But if I have to choose a very special day I would say 2012 Milan, in Piazza del Duomo, among thousands of crazy and festive fans. It was then and there I realized the Giro had finally made that step forward we had so much desired.

– Do you have any regrets, things that could have gone better at some point?

In my work I have always looked for excellence and therefore I’m sure there are many things I could have done differently and probably better. But I also believe in the “trial and error” attitude that allows to improve by doing. The 2014 Milan-Sanremo is a good example. In recent years it has become a race for sprinters (Ciolek, Cavendish, Goss, Gerrans, Freire), but the beauty of Milan-Sanremo, what pleases the fans, is its historical unpredictability, an open race that can be won by riders with very different technical qualities. Changing the path goes in this direction, harden a bit to make it more balanced and exciting. If the race will become more beautiful, we will all be happy, otherwise no one stops us to go back or experience in other directions. I call it a “dynamic equilibrium”. I love traditions and rituals, but in a world that is changing so quickly even the traditions must be able to evolve without losing their identity. Otherwise, if they stay anchored in the past, they lose interest and then die.

– There have been many talks about a possible start of the Giro from the U.S. or the Middle East. Do you still believe this could happen soon?

Never say never! Anything is possible, though we were not been able to manage (sport and business) it so far. I’ve always wanted to see the pink jersey speeding through the streets of Washington or New York, but now with a little more experience I believe that rather than forcing a pharaonic Giro Start in America, it would be more beneficial for everyone to have a calendar with some prestigious World Tour races in the United States and a Giro d’Italia that every American cycling fan will watch on television or on his mobile device. Just as has happened to Dubai, we met for the first time in the Summer of 2012 to talk about the Giro Start in Dubai, then we decided to collaborate with local government to help Dubai create its own race. Today we have a Dubai Tour with World Tour ambitions and I’m sure it will generate new fans (and new investments) of which indirectly everyone will benefit, including the Giro d’Italia.

– Beside a financial aspect, what would be the other gains for the race?

The financial aspect is secondary. When we decided to go abroad we always did it to bring the Giro’s live experience to those cycling fans who did not know the Giro or could just follow the Giro through the media. I am sure that in Ireland the Giro will receive a royal welcome.

– I remember you saying that a start from a foreign country helps the other RCS Sport races to survive. Can these races become self sustainable in the future? What would it take for this to happen?

I have always said that the Giro d’Italia for Italians is an event destined to disappear while the Giro d’Italia designed and built to reach and excite fans all over  the world would become one of the most important sporting events in the world. I’ve always said and still believe firmly in that. In the past I also said that the Giro helps the smaller races to survive (not just the start from a foreign country), but I strongly believe that every single race must be self sustainable in the future. In the RCS portfolio there are three World Tour races – Milan-Sanremo, Il Lombardia and Tirreno Adriatico – and two smaller, but super fascinating races, the Strade Bianche and Roma Maxima. Every single race must have its own identity (a soul and a heart) and its marketing strategy. Every single race must be able to attract fans and investments because it is special and it’s unique in the cycling panorama.

The main ingredients to have self  sustainable races in the future are:

1. A strong identity and uniqueness (benchmark Paris Roubaix).

2. A great live event with many live activities (free and pay) for fans and families (benchmark Tour of Flanders).

3. A combined event with men and ladies races at the same time (benchmark Tennis Masters 1000).

– In what other countries would you like to see the Giro go in the future?

Anywhere in the world. Outside Italy, we have unlimited opportunities. Every child in the world with a bicycle must go to school wearing the pink jersey and dream about racing the Giro. If I was still running the Giro, Africa would be my 2014 target.

– The Giro kept growing in the last decade, but there’s still a gap between the race and the Tour de France. What should be the next steps in closing this gap and thus persuading more top riders to be at the start?

Fans are everything. The larger the public of the Giro, the greater the media interest, the greater the interest of teams and champions. Each of these factors is both driving and driven by others. The most important quality of a good organizer is to be engaging and I think this has been my greatest merit. The Giro is like a wonderful big party and we have to be good to convince many trendsetters to participate and enjoy it.

– Would a rivalry between two Italian riders, as was the case in the past with Coppi and Bartali or Saronni and Moser, help?

No doubt that great rivalries in sports attract new fans and make the sport bigger. Always. In every sport and in every age. Cycling needs strong and charismatic champions. Champions who excite fans during the race and in front of the microphones. When I met the juniors at the Junior World Conference organized by the UCI during the Florence Worlds I told them to go to the cinema and watch “Rush” in order to understand what made Niki Lauda and James Hunt so special and why they were so loved by fans all over the world.

– When it comes to the young Italian riders, can they become the idols of tomorrow for the fans?

Many say in Italy there are a lot of strong guys, some became pro recently, others are about to make that step. All of them can have a good career, but if they want to become “an idol” they have to get into the heart of the people and to make the audience fall in love with them. It takes legs and head, heart and courage, talent and charisma. Nothing excluded.

– In the previous editions, the Giro had strade bianche, a double ascent on the Alpe di Pampeago, and a finish on the Passo dello Stelvio. Are there any more surprises left?

Surprises? I hope so. Organizers must be good at mixing the history and charm of tradition with the charm of novelty. Italy is still yet to be fully discovered on a cycling perspective and I believe in a hundred years, the Giro has shown just 10% of the Italian beauties.

– A couple of years ago, there was a rumour about having a finish on the Scanuppia-Malga Palazzo. Could this become reality or having a climb with an average gradient of 17,6% would be too much?

I have never been there in person, but I am told that the road is too narrow and not suitable to host a big event like the Giro. In principle, I am opposed to the excesses that are often counterproductive. Riders must make the race, not organizers.

– Recently, there were some talks about reducing the Grand Tours to just two weeks in the following years. Do you believe this would be a good thing, will the Giro, for example, still be the Giro?

I am more than convinced. For the good of cycling, for the public, for the show, four “two-week Grand Tours” (2 in Europe, 1 in America and 1 in Asia/Australia) would be better than the current three three-week Grand Tours (3 in Europe). And I’m also convinced that in this way we would see Chris Froome, Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali ride in all four “two-week Grand Tours”, and not just in July. This is just one of the changes that we need in order to go forward and have a real and concrete reform of cycling.

– Mister Acquarone, one more question: what’s next for you?

I’ll go wherever there is an ambitious project to be developed with professionalism and enthusiasm.

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