He’s riding his 23rd year as a pro but the controversial Italian isn’t slowing down yet
Everything changed on May 3rd, the last day of the Tour of Turkey and the now-customary Istanbul circuit race that saw the peloton cross the Bosphorus, hopping between the continents. Davide Rebellin, the 43-year-old Italian riding for Polish squad CCC Polsat Polkowice, was primed for a podium spot few would have expected at the week’s start.
But then, just thirty kilometres from the end of the race, it happened. In the crowd there was a moment of inattention, a dog running free from the lead, unwittingly causing chaos in the massed ranks of the peloton.
Rebellin’s teammate, the equally divisive Stefan Schumacher was the first to go down. Rebellin followed, hitting the road hard. His shoulder was dislocated, his race over, a victory gone.
Three weeks later he was back. Seventh overall at the Tour of Norway was followed up with a fifth place at the Italian National Championships in June. But Rebellin was still dwelling on Turkey and an opportunity missed.
“I’m still recovering from the disappointment,” he says. “The shoulder doesn’t hurt when I ride though, but I will have an operation at the end of the season.”
“Last week it popped out as I turned over in bed. I’ll have to be careful to avoid falls too.”
Earlier in the race there was a surprise win on the tough summit finish of Elmalı, beating eventual winner Kristijan Durasek and moving into the leader’s jersey. The remainder of the peloton was spread over forty minutes, with only one other man within a minute of a thrilled Rebellin.
Despite this mountain-top success, among others, Rebellin has been more renowned for his ability in the classics, rather than stage races. Maybe his drift towards success in the latter is a product of aging – when there is less explosivity in the legs for the short, sharp classics-style hills.
“Compared to previous years I feel that I’ve improved in the long climbs but have lost a bit in the sprint,” says Rebellin. “Something that has changed is that nowadays I have to do more races to find a good condition.”
One stage race that Rebellin was forced to miss out on was his home Grand Tour, the Giro d’Italia. There were suggestions that race organisers RCS Sport had barred him and Schumacher from riding, with race director Mauro Vegni commenting in January, “I’d like to have a Giro start without riders who stir controversy.”
It’s a stance that has opened Vegni up to accusations of hypocrisy, with numerous other riders who had served doping-related bans allowed to ride. At the Giro this year were Ivan Basso, Franco Pellizotti, Ilnur Zakarin, Alberto Contador, Diego Ulissi, Giovanni Visconti and Tom Danielson.
When asked about it, Rebellin had a different view. “I would’ve wanted to do it but the choice not to take me was down to the team,” he says. “I have the right to participate in races, just like others who have served doping bans. It wasn’t the case that there was discrimination against me, even if others have been in that situation.”
Whatever went on, it eventually turned out that he wouldn’t have been able to participate anyway, thanks to his shoulder injury.
The controversy Vegni talks about, and something that many still hold against Rebellin, is his ban after testing positive for CERA during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The Veronesi took silver in the road race, a result that was later rescinded as he was banned for two years.
“There are people who believe in my innocence. I’m clear that some justice has been done though, even I’ll never have what they took from me – the medal, the races I was forced to miss, and then there have been the moral an economic damages,” Rebellin says. “The judge’s ruling earlier this year has declared my innocence of doping with a full acquittal.”
That’s not quite the whole story – a court in Padova found he had no criminal case to answer after the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) had sought €500,000 damages and a year’s imprisonment for his positive test. The sporting sanctions remain, however.
Enough about the past though, what does the future hold for Rebellin?
“I started racing when I was ten years old, with my father’s team. At the moment I don’t know when I will stop,” he says. “I’ll decide during the course of the season whether to do another year.”
“I still want to race, train, I still have the determination. What keeps me in this condition is the life I live. My diet, rest and recuperation are all better than they were ten years ago. That’s where my results come from.”
After twenty-three years involvement with the sport, there are no plans to forget about cycling once he retires as a professional. “Training young cyclists is an option – both amateurs and professionals,” says Rebellin.
“I’ve already decided to arrange training camps with amateurs, and ride with them on the French Riviera. I can give them advice, share my experiences and just be among those who love cycling.”
Rebellin has been based in France for over a decade now, living in Monaco with his wife of just over a year, Françoise, and their pet cats. It’s clear that his whole outlook on life has changed in those years spent in France. “I thought I was only able to pedal before Françoise,” he says. “I was like half a man. Now I’m less insecure, more focused on doing things I love.”
Expat life hasn’t all been plain sailing though, with the Italian authorities accusing him of using his Monaco property to avoid €6.5million in taxes while supposedly still living in Italy. Rebellin was eventually cleared this year, with the case thrown out alongside the CONI charges.
There are, of course, many obvious positives of living on France’s south coast for a cyclist – the weather, the roads, easy travel to races and, last but not least, the company.
“There are many professionals based here. Sometimes I train with Niccolò Bonifazio, Oscar Gatto or my new teammate Sylvester Szmyd,” he says. “My favourite climbs are the Col de la Madone and the Col de Turini.”
For Rebellin there was another, rather more unexpected advantages – a stroke of luck that led him to join CCC in 2013.
“A Polish friend of mine, who works in Monte Carlo put me in touch with Piotr Wadecki (team DS), so he’s the man I have to thank,” he says. “We talked, found an agreement and now here I am.”
Moving to the Polish ProContinental squad was a bold move, but one that has paid off, as the team grows in stature with every passing season. “We’re improving every year, with better riders and better organisation, as well as invited to bigger races,” says Rebellin. “I think we are growing to become one of the best in the world.”
CCC is the ninth team of Rebellin’s career, and having spent three years in the distinctive orange kit, it’s also his second-longest stint at a team. German-based squad Gerolsteiner was his home from 2002 to 2008, the prime years of his career, during which time he became the first ever rider to complete the fabled Ardennes Triple in 2004, as well as winning Paris-Nice four years later.
Despite his many successes, Rebellin still laments one race he missed out on. “Being a classics-style rider, my failure to win the World Championships is my biggest regret,” he says. “My favourite victory was Liège, but the Worlds is the race I miss most from my palmarès.”
His best result at the Worlds remains his fourth place in 2008, as teammate Alessandro Ballan took victory. It’s a result he will never improve upon, due to the Italian Federation’s policy of not selecting riders who have served doping bans.
At the moment he’s leading CCC at the Tour de Pologne, his third time racing there with the home team. “I will be seeking a stage victory,” he says. “As for the general classification – I will take it day by day.”
While Rebellin may not be universally popular, it’s hard not to admire his ability to keep going. Comfortably the oldest rider in the professional peloton, he still competes for wins regularly.
There’ll be a rest period after Pologne and then he’s on the hunt again, heading back to Italy for the Autumn Classics, with the Giro di Lombardia the major goal. Look out for the man in orange, still hungry to make his mark, and with perhaps only a few more chances to do so.