They Call Him The Doctor: Domenico Pozzovivo
From Issue 86 • Interview and Images by James Startt
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Fans call him The Doctor, a familiar nickname for any professional cyclist who manages to attend university while making it into the professional ranks. But in Domenico Pozzovivo’s case, the moniker is well deserved. Growing up studying classical piano, cycling was just one of his many interests. And even while rising up through the amateur ranks in Italy he managed to finish his university degree in economics. And today—in his second season with Bahrain-Merida after five years with AG2R La Mondiale—he’s one of the world’s most respected climbers; and his interests remain varied and include among other things, a passion for meteorology. We caught up with Pozzovivo, now 36 and in his 15th pro season, at Paris-Nice, where he was honing his condition for his 13th start at the Giro d’Italia.
Domenico, you have one of the most eclectic paths of any professional. You are one of the most consistent climbers in the sport, but it took you a long time to make it to the highest level of cycling. Well, I was born in the very south of Italy, near Matera in Calabria, and started cycling there. But I did a lot of other sports and also studied classical piano for quite a while. But then I left at the age of 17 because there were not enough races really in the area. At first I raced for a team in the north, close to Torino, when I was still a junior. Then I went to ride for a team in Tuscany. Actually, my story was similar to other riders who grew up in the south like Vincenzo Nibali and Giovanni Visconti, who also had to move up north to race.
Wow, there are not a lot of professional cyclists that came from classical music. Who is your favorite composer? Oh, Chopin I would say. I love the Romantic period probably more than any other. Once I started moving around though, it was very hard for me to continue with piano because, well, it’s not exactly an instrument that travels well! But I still listen to a lot of classical music. It’s a great way to relax. I will listen to some Chopin or Liszt on the massage table or before I go to bed.
So, when did you really get into cycling? Oh, not until I was maybe 15 years old. I had ridden some before, but nothing serious. Then I really got into it. There was one big junior race close to my house. I would always watch it and one day decided I wanted to do it. At first it was just for fun, but then the results started coming. Finally, I moved up north to race, but I continued with my studies. That was the agreement I had with my parents, because they really didn’t want me to quit my studies for cycling. That was sort of the deal I had with them when I left home. I ended up getting a degree in economics at the University Marconi in Rome. It wasn’t easy to juggle my studies with cycling, but it was really interesting and it was important for me to do everything 100 percent.
That’s interesting. I always thought you were hired by the AG2R team because you were a good climber. But maybe it was because you were one of the only riders that could discuss advanced economics with Romain Bardet at the dinner table. He has a master’s degree in business management I believe. Yeah, that is true, and we often talked about politics and economy.
You have already ridden the Giro d’Italia 12 times, not to mention often finishing in the top 10 and twice top five…. Absolutely. It is definitely my favorite race. After all, I am Italian. Plus, it just suits me well. When I got into cycling, the Giro always made me dream. In addition, it comes at a good time of the year for me and I always seem to hit top form about that time. And then, of course, there are plenty of climbs in the Giro, which is ideal for a rider like myself. The climbs are generally steeper than in the Tour de France, and in the Giro there are climbs everywhere. You are not going to have a flat opening week like in the Tour, because Italy is just so mountainous. As a result you can be doing really hard, long climbs like Mount Etna in Sicily already in the first week. And for me that is just great.
What is the hardest climb for you in the Giro d’Italia? Oh, I would say the Zoncolan. The combination of its length and the sheer difficulty make it just brutal. It is just so steep for so long. It feels like we are climbing at an average percentage of 15 percent for like 45 minutes. It’s like an individual time trial. It’s just every man for himself. You’ve really got to stay concentrated for the entire time and any moment of weakness can be deadly. It’s just utterly unique, like no other climb.
And what is your favorite climb in the Giro? Oh, my favorite would be the Mortirolo. It’s also really, really hard, but the average pitch just suits me perfectly and on a good day I can have a great ride. I can just really find a rhythm on that ride. There are no 20-percent pitches. I still remember watching Marco Pantani on it as a kid.
Is it safe to say that Pantani was a hero for you growing up? Oh yeah, sure. When I started riding and started thinking of becoming a pro he was at his summit. And, of course, we were both climbers.
As I mentioned, you spent many years on the AG2R team with guys like Bardet. What impresses you the most about him? Well, first his focus. He is just so concentrated on every detail of his sport. It’s really impressive. Every detail of his bike, his training is analyzed. He doesn’t do anything without really thinking about it, always looking for a different solution that might be better. And he is like that in racing too. He is always looking for unexpected opportunities when he can attack or do something in the race.
And for the last two seasons you have been riding with Vincenzo Nibali on Bahrain-Merida. What impresses you the most about him? Ah, Vincenzo is just so surprising. Take Milan–San Remo last year. He was able to win a race like that when he was not at 100 percent. His tactical sense, his ability to rise to the occasion for the big wins, is just incredible.
Have you guys trained together in the mountains? Yeah, actually. We don’t live that far from each other so sometimes we meet up and really thrash each other. Neither he nor I like to get dropped so it can get pretty intense sometimes. We just really push each other—and that’s great!
Domenico, at 36, you are one of the most consistent climbers in the peloton. Is there one race you would like to win before the end of your career? Oh, well, there are two things. Last year I wasn’t far from winning the Italian championships and that is a jersey I’d love to wear once in my life. And then of course there is the pink jersey in the Giro. I think any Italian who wears both of those jerseys can be happy with their career.
From issue 86.