WORDS MATT WRAGG
ACTION PHOTOS ALE DI LULLO/CANNONDALE
In the mostly very serious world of Olympic XC, Marco Fontana stands out as the flamboyant, funny and opinionated Italian. He earned himself a place as an Italian national hero at the 2012 London Olympics by fighting back from a mechanical to win the bronze medal. On the World Cup circuit he's a regular at the top end of the results sheets in both Olympic XC and cyclocross. More than that, he can hold his own against world class downhillers and enduro racers in the gravity disciplines. We caught up with him on the pump track at Massa Vecchia in Tuscany to talk about why he likes high saddles, doesn't wear lycra and thinks downhill should be in the Olympics. What is it about cross-country that made you choose that discipline?
It's mountain biking. For sure, it's cool to look at guys who can jump off 20m, but cross-country is cool because... First-off, it's a cool bike to look at, to ride. Then, you can do everything with your bike. I know a lot of guys like freeride bikes or downhill bikes, but you have to go up with something, otherwise you don't enjoy your bike. Bikes are made for pedalling. Cross-country bikes are something that can give you the chance to do everything. A lot of people tend to see XC as just long fireroad climbs.
It's really different to that, I think it's getting cool to watch. We have really technical courses, really technical descents. Tracks are getting shorter. It's a really cool race to watch. I'm not saying it's not tough, there's nothing easy in this world and, sure, you need to pedal. Don't get me wrong, but you can also enjoy climbing. It's not just "ahhh, I need to go all the way up." If you're a sporty person, then you also like this kind of stuff. I truly believe people that hate cross-country or road riding, just because it's tough, they never tried it. Or they don't try it enough, because you can also enjoy going up the hill. Now, with enduro you can see guys and they train, and they like to train because you get fit, and they like to be fit. Everything gets easier. What about descending on those bikes? Surely the high seatpost gets in the way?
It's enjoyable. It's still something you can enjoy a lot. If you've never ridden a bike with a high seat for a while, you just say "how the hell you can you ride this bike? How can you go down?" You can, and you can go fast. It's about practicing on that bike. Maybe at some point we will come out with a bike with a dropping seatpost, who knows? It depends on the course. It's not easy to ride a bike with a fixed seatpost, but it's possible and you can do stuff... Yeah, about dropper posts... I know a lot of people outside of XC look at your bikes and ask "why don't they use dropper posts?"
Dropping seatpost are a really good idea, but on a cross-country bike, we need to build bikes around that. A cross-country bike has a really steep head-angle, with a dropping seatpost, if you take out the saddle, it's not balanced. For us, it's not natural, as with the steep head-angle, if you have nothing between your legs, it's not comfortable. Maybe, in the future we will have different bikes, more aggressive, then maybe yes... While we're talking about style, you're not a fan of lycra, right?
No! Lycra is something that came into cycling sports back in the days, I don't know when... I think, looking at our sports, the whole sport of mountain biking, it's getting big, it's growing a lot in every discipline - downhill, all-mountain, enduro, whatever. I think in races, which are the first thing people see, when people buy a magazine the first thing people want to see is racing, and I think, then, we should look more aggressive, we should look more modern. I think lycra is something a bit... old. For sure it's perfect road racing, for somebody else. But for me, I feel more comfortable with myself when I wear something a bit more, you know... I'm not forcing people, "you have to do this, you have to do that..." But I feel comfortable and I think it's cooler. As long as it works, why not? It seems XC is changing quite a lot these days?
It's changed quite a bit because races are shorter. Times are faster, but also courses are shorter, which means the climbs are shorter, so there is more sprinting, more technical riding. It's not just going down big rocks that's technical, it's also shifting well and breathing when you have to. The rhythmn is really high, it's always push and brake, push and brake. I guess, and I hope, that they will keep build more artifical courses, for flowing races. We have cool races, but what is nice in mountain biking, to ride and to watch, is when you keep the flow. In everything, even downhill. When you have such a steep, straight up on a fireroad and you go maybe 8 or 10km/h, it's not nice to watch and, I can tell you , it's not nice to ride. When you have courses like London, or Dalby Forest, you have courses where you can keep going with flow. Down and up, down and up, and you can get your rhythmn and it's nice. It's tough, but it's nice. Do you think the emergence of enduro is affecting cross-country?
It's tough to say. Enduro is a new discipline, it's growing, it's growing a lot. I could see that every country has different styles of enduro. We have Superenduro in Italy, in France it's different. Enduro is going up the hill, but you take your time, so it's a different sport. Cross-country is an endurance sport, it's getting more technical, but it's still an endurance sport. What was your favourite race course last year then?
London. I can remember on Thursday, I was practicing the course for an hour and I could keep going for a while, because it was really, really nice. You'd keep the speed down, then up, shifting and shifting, then turn, sprinting. It was nice, really nice. Even if mountain biking is a grassroots sport, it's true that you ride in the mountains and hill and go wherever you want and it's cool. But races are different. Races have to be a bit more manmade, a bit more fluid and nice to ride and watch. I hope they will keep pushing in this direction. Speaking of London, talk us through that race.
London... I used to say that in bike racing, everything can happen. Ok, I had this problem, I broke the seatpost. At the bottom it was completely broken and it fell down. So I lost some time and I lost the leading group, because I was together with the two top guys. If I had a normal problem like a flat tyre or a broken chain, maybe we wouldn't be sitting here talking about a guy who won a medal. Everything can happen. Aaron Gwin lost Worlds because the brake didn't work... This is bike racing. I felt pretty good, I felt I could I race until the finish line with the other two guys and probably I could come to the finish line with them. But I can't say I would have won, you can't say that... How much does having an Olympic medal change things for you?
Olympic medals are something big. In your home country and it's really nice because you read La Gazetta del Sport. Another thing, which is even better, is that I could see from that point on... I could see more bikes. I could see people going to ride their bikes and this is super-cool. This is the power of the Olympics, this is the power of a medal because everybody watches the Olympics because it's the biggest sporting event in the world. When you see something like that, maybe you look at this guy, he's a normal guy and he could make it and win the bronze, so I want to try. I feel like more people finally realised what mountain biking is - it's enjoyment , it's freedom. We're in the Maremma and it's nice, but we're in Italy and everywhere is nice, everywhere you can ride your bike. This is something I want to push. What about Rio 2016 then?
2016? Yeah, I think I'm going to win in 2016, ha ha. I'm only 28. What do you make of the Eliminator discipline?
I see Eliminator as something cool to put together with the main race, which is Olympic cross-country. Then the UCI tried to put it into the World Cup weekend as something more, adding something for spectators. I'm not 100% where the sport is going. It's a nice discipline, but we need to have proper rules in it. It's not good starting without a gate, for example. Or... Having a race which is 100% tarmac. Having the race on Friday night, then we race on Sunday afternoon, it's tough. If I want to be at least in the top five on Sunday, I don't want to spend the whole Friday afternoon and evening on the Eliminator. It sounds a lot like what happened with dual/4X races at the downhill World Cups a few years ago...
I'm not saying anything against the downhill guys, but they do only race for three minutes. The level is so high and it's so technically demanding... But for us, with Eliminator you are spending hours losing energy and you need everything on Sunday. Also for the downhill guys, having two different bikes is difficult. I know Gwin can do well at 4X, but the bikes are different and racing four-up isn't easy. The point is, if they want us doing both, they have to put in an overall. They can't just put money or UCI points, they have to put a World Cup overall. Then, we can talk. It's not fair when a guy just does the Eliminator and on Sundays race, he does 200m and quits. The rule is that if you want to do the Eliminator, you have to race on Sunday... But if they just have to start and then quit, easy, I can do the same... We try to work with the UCI and try to give advice to them, so let's see what's going to happen. I heard some rumours that they want to put it in the Olympics or something, but I think it's kind of wrong. First of all we have downhill, for sure. It's a super-new discipline, I don't think it's something we want to use to show people this is mountain biking. This is not mountain biking, this is a discipline added to the World Cup programme. If it's something added to the weekend, I think it's fine, but I don't think it's an Olympic discipline. Olympic is where you bring the best of your sport and you show this to the whole world. Would you do that with Eliminator? No. You mention downhill in the Olympics...
You should ask the downhill guys... But I think they are split, some of them would love to, but some of them, they don't want to hear about it. I think it's a proper discipline, it's a proper one... As someone who has had that Olympic experience, what is your take on including it?
That's why I'm saying they should have downhill in the Olympics. Because, first of all, for the downhill guys, it's a life opportunity. The Olympics are so big... You see the top guys of every sport and, I can tell you, it's a super-nice feeling, being there... Then, when you do your race, you show the whole world what you do for your life. What your sport is. It's nice, because a lot of people still don't know what downhill is: "Oh, those guys are crazy, they jump down the houses." But it's not. It's a proper sport. I like it, I like a lot, otherwise I wouldn't be here talking about downhill in the Olympics... I don't know if a lot of people will know that you race downhill and enduro too.
I would like to do more... I like to do gravity races, but my biggest focus is cross-country. I love it, I love the fact that it's a bar-to-bar race, it's endurance, it's technical, it's everything. I will keep going for a while with this. Gravity racing is a different approach to racing. Cross-country is really racing, you can't just come and say "I'll come and race with you guys" because after one and a half laps you'll be lapped. But with enduro, it's something more for everybody. They can say "I'll come and race against Vouilloz, Jerome... or Fontana" and why not? For sure, the level is going to be higher and higher, and these guys are really fit and fast, but I think the point is a participants sports. You can go and share you passion, your experience with all these guys. That's why I like to do it. I also like speed and tough trails too, I love... But the point is, our sport is really demanding , really tough, now we just spent half an hour on the pump track. This morning I was training and this afternoon I spent half an hour on the pump track and I am happy. I would like to take the car, go up and maybe do two or three descents a day. But you have to spend your energy in a good way. In cross-country, it's so tough that in your free time you have to rest. What does your training plan look like then?
The training plan... if we start from January. Normally from January I race cyclocross and I do quite well, in [the previous World Cup round in] Rome I did third. I won the national championship, haha. Until the end of January when I have worlds, I do cyclocross. In February and March I do the long distance training, the base for the season. never more than five hours, it's a base where you do 20-25 hours a week. It's the maximum I do, normally at the end of the February, then I go lower because it's about power training, interval training. Cross-country isn't like road or marathon, you don't have to do a lot, but you have to do really specific training. That's really important. It's behind the car, getting your speed. Because it's so complete as a sport, endurance, technical and sprinting, so it's not about how much you do, but what you do. When you start racing, you use your mountain bike more to do technical stuff. In February and March it's more on the road bike, because you can't spend twenty hours a week on the mountain bike, because it's going to be tough.