Diego Rosa late to bloom

Diego Rosa Team Sky

Diego Rosa, bright-eyed and optimistic in April 2016

Diego Rosa raced under the radar for years. Starting off as a mountain biker, he rode for Androni Giocattoli and blossomed at Astana. How did he reach Sky?

Diego Rosa signed to ride for Team Sky in the autumn of 2016, before his bold, doomed effort to win the Tour of Lombardy where he finished a close second behind Esteban Chaves of Orica in a desperate sprint. This interview dates from earlier in the same season, when his star was still on the rise and deals with the background to his rise through the road racing ranks.

Although Diego Rosa has just turned 28, he looks 18. It could be a testimony to his early career as a mountain biker or perhaps a fountain of youth near his home in Corneliano d’Alba, south east of Turin. Either way, he wouldn’t get served a drink in a Glasgow night club without being asked for proof of age.

He looks young enough to be a new professional and, up till 2015, you’d have to have studied the results and the runes very closely to detect a big talent. But, for the start of the 2015 season, someone at Astana took a punt and Rosa’s career took a step forward.

As it turned out, Rosa would be a key component in the team that helped Fabio Aru win the 2015 Vuelta and he followed that up with a win in the oldest Classic still running, Milan-Turin. In his ‘local’ race Rosa took his chance and won alone at the summit of the Basilica di Superga. For a rider more used to playing a supporting role, a solo win atop a five kilometre climb was impressive.

“It was an important race for me, it’s only 60km from my home and I’ve done the race four times, so all in all I don’t look at Milan-Turin the same way as the other riders, this is a really important race for me. In the team meeting before the start, we had Fabio (Aru) and (Mikel) Landa, but the team saw that I was going well at the Tre Valli Varesine and said OK, Fabio and Landa were there for the finale, but I should attack near the start of the climb, I should give it a go – so I attacked and that was it, done!”

He makes it sound easy – he won by 16 seconds clear of Tinkoff’s Rafal Majka who had just finished third overall in the Vuelta and clear of Aru in third. In fact Milan-Turin was a race that in some respects he ‘won’ at the Vuelta. Rather than party hearty and celebrate his friend Aru’s Spanish triumph, Rosa kept his head on the job at hand. “After the Vuelta I went home but I stayed focused and kept training and I worked hard, I didn’t stop. I rested a little then started riding again – I worked and worked hard and long hours with Milan-Turin and Lombardy in mind. OK, the Vuelta was finished and we won (with Aru, while Rosa finished 20th on GC), but I knew those two races were good for me and, in any case, after those two races, my season was finished, so I could train and race hard and then after, if I was really tired, it didn’t matter, it was finished, no problem!”

Diego Rosa Pais Vasco Pays Basque win 2016

Rosa’s 2016 stage win in Pais Vasco ended in an mtb style celebration

Three days after his solo win, Rosa was a key player in helping Vincenzo Nibali win the Tour of Lombardy (where he finished fifth) and kicked off the 2016 season with a tremendous stage win in the toughest stage in the Tour of the Basque Country, complete with his ‘homage’ to mountain biking victory line celebration.

For his first year at Astana, those were a series of impressive performances. It was not, however, his first year as a road pro, because Rosa spent two seasons at Androni Giocattoli, never venturing much out of Italy with the Continental Professional team. He did start the 2013 Tour of Italy though – and finished it too, a feat in itself he doubted he was capable of when he started racing on the road.

“For anyone who races mountain bikes, it is impossible to imagine racing on Saturday and Sunday. At top level mountain biking it takes you three days to recover from a race, you just feel totally dead, you’re just not capable of racing again for a week. So to do back-to-back races over a weekend is unthinkable. Well, in my first year I did the Giro and in the last week I was going well, I felt strong and I thought ‘This isn’t possible’ because I started the race thinking, ‘OK, I’ll last a week, maybe 10 days, then I’ll be back home,’ but you realise it’s possible. It was like (Milan) San Remo, 300 kilometres long and when I was a little kid, watching that race, seeing them ride two and three hundred kilometers you just think its impossible. I had never raced 200 kilometers and they’re doing 300? It was the same thing in the Giro, to think about doing 200km every day?”

Rosa shakes his head and smiles at the recollection. Which is not to say that he underestimated the step from mountain biking to road racing to World Tour Classics. “Of course it was tough but I don’t think it ever came to that point where I thought ‘I can’t do this,’ though it was hard in a few races when I was flat-out on the limit, but little by little you improve and the second year you feel better.”

And of course, there are always more experienced riders around to point you in the right direction. “I was lucky at Androni that Pellizotti was there, I shared a room with him sometimes, and I always tried to stay close to him in races and was always advising me. So many times I would say to him that my legs were hurting, that I felt bad and he would say ‘Yeah, me too and the same with everyone else!’ which was really good for morale, even if he was feeling OK and it wasn’t true,” he laughs.

Curiously, it’s a source of wonder and curiosity for almost anyone who rides a bike. How is it possible to race for three weeks? Anyone who rides knows the feelings of fatigue that come with consecutive days racing and it was strange to hear a rider of Rosa’s experience had precisely the same sense of wonder and dread when it came to tackling stage races.

Talking to Rosa, he still seems to be rather bemused, a little surprised by his surroundings and results. He smiles and laughs a lot, shakes his head in what appears to be disbelief, as though this former mountain biker still hasn’t assimilated his circumstances and results. After all, it’s all happened rather quickly. “When I started riding and racing, I was a mountain biker, 100 per cent but in my last season in the under-23 category I tried a couple of races on the road – international races, at a good level – and I finished around the top 10, which was encouraging.” Rosa’s dad raced a little as an amateur but, with five boys in the family, he hung up his bike to work as a plumber, so there was no big history of racing in the family.

Diego Rosa and Specialized  Belgium,  2016

Diego Rosa at Riemst, Belgium, 18 April 2016

Given that he came late to road racing, it wouldn’t be a shock to find that he has little ‘road craft’ but he’s not been particularly crash-happy. “Even as an amateur it was hard because I had a lot to learn, I didn’t know which riders I had to keep an eye on, which riders to follow, I didn’t know the races, the roads, when to eat in a race, what to eat in a race, I knew nothing, nothing at all of that side of the sport. In team meetings before the start of races, the manager would just tell me, ‘Look, follow number 32,’ and that was it, I didn’t even know what the jerseys of other teams were, so they tried to make it as easy as possible for me. They’d say, ‘OK, on this climb, we want you to attack!’ and I basically followed the instructions.”

Even if Rosa started as a tactically naïve, raw road rider, his talent and ‘engine’ got him through because even in his first year in the top flight of amateur road racing, he was winning and getting regularly placed in the top 10.

What might be more accurate is to say that he’s still getting used to life and racing at Astana, which is a rather different proposition to the style and set-up of his first, previous road squad. The planning and preparation that went into winning the Vuelta is illustrative of the gap between his old team and Astana. For Rosa, the victory in Spain has been a clear highlight. “Yes, I think the best moment so far was when we won in the Vuelta, because it’s a long race and you work for a long time to achieve the win. In fact you start long before the race because you go to altitude training camps, then a preparation race like the Tour of Poland, then back to altitude camp for three weeks to work hard. Then in the Vuelta, is was tough because the time gaps between Fabio and (Tom) Dumoulin were so close, just seconds, which makes it hard psychologically too, for Fabio, of course, but also for the whole team, two days from the finish we were still three seconds behind Dumoulin and it was unthinkable that we would lose a three week race by only three seconds! We had to win.”
Which, in the end, is precisely what they did, attacking a cruelly exposed Dumoulin on the penultimate stage of the race with its four mountains. “It was massive, really emotional.”

Diego Rosa 2017 Sky Pinarello Dogma F9 Shimano Dura Ace

Rosa, smiling with Team Sky in 2017

At the moment Rosa is still finding his way in the (road) peloton, but early in 2015 Vincenzo Nibali has already paid him a compliment that may yet come back to haunt him. In Italian sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport, he said, “He’s strong, Diego Rosa, I like him a lot. Sooner or later this one will win a Giro d’Italia.” It’d be rude (and a bit pointless) to ask if he has ambitions in that directions, because it’s clear he has, but he’s also smart enough to know he’s got time on his side. A late blooming Rosa you could say. Yeah, that’s right, it’s the inevitable, ghastly, flower-based pun…

Roadie stiffback

Rosa came to road cycling via mountain biking, eventually racing for Giant Italia and selection for the Italian national team in cross-country, finishing eighth in the World championships in 2011 in the under-23 class.
“I was riding and training with road riders and I always went OK when we were out, in fact on most of the climbs I would drop them, so they started to suggest I should try road racing,” recalls Rosa, “I think it was a little bit of a joke, because dropping guys in training is one thing, but in a race? That’s different,” which makes his conversion sound more like he jumped from off- to on-road out of curiosity rather than the firm conviction that he could make a career out of it. Rosa ended up riding for Team Palazzago where he met Fabio Aru for the first time, “though I didn’t race with him much since he had a lot of experience and I had…nothing.” He spent two seasons there before he was signed by Androni Giocattoli, at which point, the story takes off.

Training then, training now

To go from training for cross-country mountain bike events, to racing with Pro Continental Giocattoli and then to one of the best-resourced World Tour teams, Rosa has seen some changes to his training and coaching regime.

“Maurizio Mazzoleni is my coach at Astana. Compared to what we did at Androni my training has changed enormously. At Androni I was more or less training myself, with whatever came into my head and because I had come from a mountain bike background my training was quite a bit different from the other guys anyway. I had to learn how to train for the road, how to prepare for a three week race, how to train for a 250km Classic and so on. There was a coach at Androni, but it was more a case of him telling me what I was doing wrong, I was basically training myself and getting stuff wrong. I was trying to work it out, but it wasn’t easy. In the end it was us talking, of compromise and him getting to know what worked, like me suggesting what I thought I should be doing and him suggesting modifications. It was more of a dialogue – he’d say ‘OK, you’re doing five hours today’ and I’d say ‘No, how about six?!’ (laughs).

At Astana, that changed. “Yeah, well.. this is the first time I’ve had a coach who has set me training that I like (laughs), that is properly structured and planned. It was different, but I was happy to try what was being suggested. I tried the training in the first few months and then saw how it went in races – a real test! And if the race went well, OK, we can carry on training like this otherwise I can tell him I was right (laughs).

Astana’s coaching staff, like so many others, clearly believe in the benefits of altitude training camps rather than an overloaded race programme. Here too, Rosa has noticed the benefits. “I did some altitude training with Androni too, at Sestriere. In 2015 we went to altitude camp in January, then again in March and again before the Giro. With Androni we did two weeks just before the Giro and that was it.” At Astana, there’s a bit more than that, as the Vuelta win demonstrated.

Palmares

Diego Rosa (Italy) 27th March 1989
Team: Sky
Pro since: 2013
Results 2016
Stage 5 Tour of Pais Vasco
2nd Tour of Lombardy
10th Liege-Bastogne-Liege
2015 Astana
Milan – Turin
5th Tour of Lombardy
5th Strade Bianche
20th overall Tour of Spain
2013 Androni Giocattoli
5th overall Route du Sud
22nd overall Giro d’Italia

Words: Kenny Pryde @Kenny_Pryde
Photos Graeme Brown @geebeeimages

May 2017 (interviewed April 2016)