My professional career started with Team Barloworld, but it was not a classic beginning.
During my last year as an amateur I did not get a contract for a professional team, so during the winter, while all the pro teams were starting their program for the new season, I was preparing myself for another season as an amateur. I had lost all hope of becoming a professional when I got a call from Claudio Corti, of Team Barloworld. He said he had a place in his new team, but before he would offer it to me, he wanted to see me riding on their training camp in Tuscany.
The whole team would meet at the service course before leaving for the camp and luckily it was only 30km from my home, so I set off with the bike and kit of my last team.
When I arrived at the service course, I couldn’t believe my eyes. A warehouse full of amazing bikes and kit. Five mechanics and five soigneurs were waiting to get all the guys ready for the camp. When I walked in, straight away the head mechanic shouted ‘Hey you, youngster, come here quickly we don’t have time to loose. Bring your bike I have to get it ready for the training camp’.
The warehouse was very clear and orderly. All the team bikes were mounted on a large rack on one wall. Each rider had a part of the rack and four bikes, three road and one time trial. On another wall, there was a rack full of wheels with shallow and deep section rims, tt wheels, and handbuilt wheels for the northern classics races. As well as all this equipment, each rider got an extra road and tt bike to take home to train with, so actually each rider had six bikes in total!
The second part of the warehouse was dedicated to the soigneurs and here you could find all the clothing like jerseys, shorts, helmets etc. Each rider had a box on the shelf, which had everything he needed for racing. When I got there I was asked about my body sizes as they would adjust all my clothing to fit me perfectly, I couldn’t believe it – bespoke clothing!
The head soigneur opened a big book and began taking my measurements and making notes of the changes I would require. Then he started to make notes on my diet and any allergy to foods in another book. It turned out that these books are like the bible of the team, with every piece of information needed to ensure the perfect preparation and recovery during the races.
When he finished writing I said “You have made all these notes about me but I haven’t even got a contract yet”. His response would help me over the next three weeks on the camp – ‘If Claudio has called you here, it is because he is interested in you, take this chance and work hard and I am sure all will go well’.
The training camp was in Montecatini Terme in Tuscanny and I went there with my old bike and kit and a strong desire to realise my dream. I travelled to the camp with Enrico Degano and Giosuè Bonomi, who would go on to be my friends at Barloworld and teach me a lot about being a professional. During our journey they asked me many questions about my experience and my life in general. It actually felt like a job interview, but it ended well. They even gave me the nickname Giorgio, which they still call me today.
Training camps are a whole new story. Let’s just say, I had a splendid three weeks and did enough in that time to convince Corti to give me a contract, although he didn’t let me know straight away.
It was the night of the team presentation party and I wasn’t sure if I had made the team or not. The longer they didn’t tell me, the more I was convinced, I wasn’t going to get it. But then Corti told me to get ready for the presentation and I knew it could mean only one thing.
What happened at the party is not for these pages, but I was surprised to finish the night without any initiation as were my fellow stagliere Alexander Efimkon and Amets Txurruka. In older riders eyes I could see though that there was something to come.
The next day the new professionals brought cake and wine to the dinner in the restaurant of the hotel we were staying in. When dinner was finished, we were made to strip to our underwear and stand on chairs in front of the whole team and staff, while the older riders interviewed us. Before each answer we had to drink a glass of wine in one, and each question was more embarrassing to answer. Once we had passed the test, we had to stand together and sing the national anthem. It certainly taught me what I should do with the riders that would become professional after me!
To sum up, it was quite an amazing start to my career; from feeling like there was no chance of becoming a professional to celebrating with riders I had watched race for years, all in the space of a month. If you have an opportunity like that, you cannot let it slip between your fingers.
Images courtesy of altadefinizione.sirotti.it