Whenever I write about Valentina Scandolara, I’m always amazed by how young she is – aged just 23, she seems to have been a fixture in the top ranks of women’s racing for as long as I can remember.
The reason for this is her absolutely enormous public profile, which she has gained in two ways: one, by being extremely successful (she’s been a National Champion sixteen times, a European Champion three times, finishes near the top in most of the races she enters and is currently ranked 44th in the world) and two, by earning popularity as a rider who is absolutely guaranteed to make every race she enters even more exciting than it would otherwise have been. The success comes from a combination of natural talent, hard work and tactical skill; the ability to make a race more exciting comes from her willingness to attack anything that moves, then attack again and again and again.
Valentina started her professional career with the Lithuanian Safi-Pasta Zara-Titanedi team in 2006, then rode for Italian teams until 2013. For 2014, she is with the Australian Orica-AIS squad.
You can follow her on Twitter, and you should – because in addition to providing us with some very interesting answers, she’s one of the nicest people in women’s cycling.
When and how did you first get into cycling?
I first got into cross running, when I was 7, because my father always ran and raced those events (as well as marathons). I also played soccer, but running was my favourite and I devoted my winters to it. I started cycling when I was 8 because one of my father’s colleagues was the President of Officine Alberti Val d’Illasi, which became my first cycling Team. I kept running during the winters and cycling during the summers until I was 11 or 12 years old, and I won three National titles in cross running, as well as one in 5-aside soccer a little later (2006). My first ever cycling coach was Gianni Guardini, father of Andrea, who outsprinted Cavendish in the 18th Stage of the 2012 Giro d’Italia (he’s now with Astana). I stayed in that first team for 11 years, until I became an Elite rider, and I owe so much to them – especially to Luigino Sabaini, who coached me from 2004 to 2008.
I really love the fact that in the running and cycling, you can’t hide. They both are really hard sports, and require a lot of dedication. I love the values that sport taught me. I’ve visited so many places and met so many different people on the way, and each one of them taught me something valuable, although not always it has been easy and nice, not at all. From sport I got a lot of true friends, but also someone that showed me the bad that the naive me did not see before in people (and sometimes still do not see).
Sport can teach a lot to people, it makes you grow, although you can never be truly prepared for real life surprises – in those moments sport can be really helpful, a kind of release valve, you only have to choose between reacting or giving up. One of these moments was in 2008, when my mother had a really bad heart attack and went to hospital some days before the European Road Champs where I was going to race to defend the title I won the previous year. She asked me to race, and I went to the hospital afterwards with the winner’s flowers! It was one of my best highs, but I have had some really dark lows as well. I think sportspeople have some mental characteristics that help them to excel in their fields, but sometimes this can also be a double-edged sword that can make you lose the reins…
What was the highlight of your 2013, and what are your goals for 2014?
2013 was a year during which I wanted to show to myself and to others that I hadn’t disappeared – that I had been sick in 2012 but now I was back. I just wanted to have an idea of where I stood, if I could somehow be a good rider, of if I perhaps I needed to think about other things in life. I just wanted to race, race and race, I hadn’t planned a peak, a target; I trained pretty much by myself, listening a lot to my body, and in July I entered a really strong period during which I won a stage in Thuringen, got some podiums as well, and did some other really good races until I crashed in the Route de France. My best moment ever was later, in Trophée d’Or, even if I did not win a stage. I tried to maintain my fitness level until the Worlds in Florence, but I could not make it. I was equally very happy to be good in the Team Time Trial and then help my National Team as best as I could in the Road Race. For my 2013, I have to thank a lot Luisiana Pegoraro, my amazing director in Cipollini, and Roberto Rossi, who coached me till last year.
The highlight of 2013, though, was signing with Orica-AIS FOR 2014: I am really honoured to be part of this team and very motivated for this new advernture. I spent two months in Australia with the team, and did the first UCI race in Qatar last week. I can say I loved it, and already learnt a lot. They all are amazing, I can understand now why they were top of the UCI ranking for 2013, and I am sure we will have a wonderful year together!
My main goals this year will be the National Championships and the Giro Rosa in June-July, then the World Championships in September. But in every race I want to give my best, for my Team and teamies!
What does the future hold for women’s cycling? Are you optimistic or pessimistic?
I am very optimistic about the future of women’s cycling. Something seems to be changing, thanks to wonderful girls who stood up and raised their voice. I am thinking of Katherine Bertine and her Women’s Tour De France project, which was promoted by Marianne Vos, Emma Pooley and Chrissie Wellington – and the result they got: a Women’s race on the Champs Elysées on the last day of the 2014 Tour de France, and now the Vuelta a Espana also wants to have a Women’s race from 2015. It’s just amazing.
In 2013, a lot of fans have been getting more involved in women’s cycling. Any ideas what we can do to help even more?
I think that when women’s cycling gets media coverage and reaches the people who already love men’s cycling, it’ll be a virtuous cycle: people and sponsors will arrive, women’s cycling will have the chance to become even more professional, and this will make women’s cycling even more interesting for people and sponsors. I think the winning formula is to race more on the same day and same place as the men, and another big thing would be if more and more men’s teams started women’s teams (like Orica-Greenedge and Orica-AIS for example). This would bring new people and new experiences to cycling, and that means only one thing: growth.
How can the cycling world – fans, riders, race organisers and the UCI – encourage more women to start racing?
Cycling shouldn’t be too difficult to promote. It’s a wonderful sport, to watch and to practise – it’s healthy, it allows people to chat with friends during a ride and to explore nature and your surroundings much more than jogging. Maybe some women think it’s a men’s sport – because they only see men’s cycling on TV. Maybe – and hopefully – when we have more media coverage more women will try it and end up loving it.
I’d just say go out there and watch a women’s race before you can talk. I think every honest person would agree that some flat, endless stages in Tour de France, for example, are simply soporific. Women’s races are never boring, or very rarely. Female cyclists are so competitive, but you won’t realise this if you never watch a race. A lot of people who hadn’t watched before told me after seeing the Giro Rosa, the Worlds, or the Olympics on TV that they did not think women’s races could be so exciting. We only need the opportunity to show to more and more people how good our races can be.
It’ll hopefully be many years away, but one day you’ll retire from racing. Will you stay involved in cycling, perhaps as a team manager or with the UCI?
I still don’t know – for the moment I don’t think about and I am just enjoying my racing time. For sure I’d like to be able help younger girls to reach their dreams one day, or to build a better, more equal world for them. But to do this, we all can start right now. At the moment I don’t really know if my future lies in cycling, I have so many other interests in life – time and events will say what I will do when I grow up.
Here’s a time machine which you can use to meet any rider from any point in history. Who will you be meeting?
I am meeting so many great people right now – I’m not sure I’d like to meet someone in the past. For sure I would like to have had the chance to race longer with riders of the calibre of Judith Arndt and Edita Pucinskaite. To me, they are legendary; role models worthy of the deepest respect (and you don’t achieve this kind of respect simply by winning bike races). I am lucky, because Edita is a really good friend of mine, and her husband Roberto used to coach me, so we are really close to each other and I will be always grateful to both of them for the priceless lessons they taught me (and still teach me).
Well, a thing that I don’t like so much about women’s cycling, is that we don’t know our history (me in pole position, I do not know). We don’t know the names of the riders who raced before us; the riders who shaped our sport. Men’s cycling has that to teach us.
Last question, and it’s the one that top psychologists agree reveals more about a person than any other: which is better – cats or dogs?
200% DOGS!!!!! =)
Thank you Valentina!