There’s no one quite like the effervescent Gianni Savio working in the elite men’s peloton. Dapper and stylish, with an ever-eternal optimism, the veteran Italian team manager has been a permanent fixture in pro cycling for four decades. He resembles a character from Italian cycling’s glorious and glamorous past, but he has very much both feet in the 21st century.
With a career trajectory dating back to the 1980s, no one in the Italian milieu can match his longevity and eternal love for the sport. “Cycling is the passion that pulses through my life,” Savio tells Peloton over the phone. “Perhaps it is also a curse! It almost consumes my life, but it is the passion of cycling that keeps me going.”
Savio turns 74 this spring, but he’s as excited as ever about the upcoming season. Some things never change.
This year, he is bringing a team to what will be his 34th edition of the Giro d’Italia, certainly a record in grand tour racing among team general managers. That was confirmed on February 28 when he learned that his new-look Drone Hopper- Androni Giocattoli team had earned one of the Giro’s four wild-card spots.
Savio is old-school and always places honor before pride when it comes to his beloved Giro. Some might laugh at the no-hope breakaway efforts that his team is often a part of day-in and day-out across the arc of the Giro, but it puts his typical team sponsors—such as a small Italian toymaker or an obscure clothing manufacturer—on the TV screens. For Savio, it’s about pushing passion into the pedals and feeling the emotion pulse through the organization.
“I always want young riders with ambition and determination to honor the races,” Savio explains. “We always attack. That is the philosophy of our team. We do not have a big champion like [Egan] Bernal, so we have to race with a different strategy. If we wait until the final we would never win. Instead, we anticipate the race and we stay up front. And sometimes something beautiful happens, like when we won a stage with Fausto Masnada in the 2019 Giro.”
Savio is like a proud father when he watches his best pupils getting snatched up by the WorldTour teams. His DNA is spread across the sport, with Masnada now at Quick-Step-Alpha Vinyl and Swiss rider Simon Pellaud making the leap to Trek-Segafredo in 2022. They are among the seven riders who’ve jumped from the “Savio Legion” into the WorldTour.
Savio hails from Turin, the industrial city in northwest Italy known for its roll-up-the-sleeves working man’s spirit and deep passion for sport. The city is home to Fiat and soccer giant Juventus, and it played host to the 2008 Winter Olympic Games.
“There is no sport that gives as much passion as cycling,” says Savio. “I used to be involved in football and I was always a fan of cycling. I grew up watching Coppi and Bartali. Once I started my first team, cycling has been my life. I try to share that passion with my riders, and I am so proud of them when they can join a WorldTour squad.”
Savio quite literally stitched together a team for nearly four decades. Rather than relying on a single, big-money title sponsor, Savio built his legacy on a mish-mash of smaller, but equally passionate sponsors. Most of them are family-owned businesses across the heartland of Italian cycling. His team jerseys are almost cultish among fans because they have a quiltlike flavor and look more like something from local cycling clubs in Italy or Spain than a grand-tour-level squad.
“My teams have never raced at the WorldTour,” Savio says with a touch of pride. “We’ve always had very passionate sponsors who did not have the possibility to invest the amount required for the WorldTour. That is the biggest victory for me, to have a team every year, to fight in every race, to win and finish on the podiums of the biggest races like the Giro.”
Savio is always quick with a smile and a bit of gossip. Every chat usually includes his purring in your ear, “I have found a rider who can be even better than Egan Bernal!”
Long associated with Latin American racing, Savio signed a then-unknown Colombian, Bernal, to his first pro contract.
Other “discoveries” include José Rujano, the pint-sized Venezuelan climber who nearly nipped the WorldTour heavyweights in the 2005 Giro d’Italia, Leonard Sierra and Iván Sosa, among many others.
Savio probed the results sheets of South American racing, years before it was trendy and a decade before the top WorldTour teams’ European agents began swooping in. With the rise of the likes of Nairo Quintana, Richard Carapaz, Rigoberto Urán and Bernal, now every WorldTour team wants to sign a young promising Colombian in what’s the latest wave of escarabajos hitting the world stage.
“Times have changed!” Savio beams. “I used to drive deep into the mountains on narrow roads to meet with riders in Colombia and Venezuela in some lost village. This was during the time the internet did not exist. Now all the big teams watch the results. It’s much more difficult for us to find these diamonds in the rough. Everyone is looking for the next Egan Bernal. But there is only one like him every 20 years.”
Despite the new challenges, Savio’s lifelong David vs. Goliath struggle could be ending. He has a major opportunity entering the 2022 season, having finally landed a “big fish” as title sponsor. Drone Hopper is a Spanish-based industrial, heavyduty drone producer that wants to raise its commercial profile to promote its logistical, security and agricultural drone vehicles.
Ever the smooth operator, Savio pulled a fast one on Spanish superstar Alberto Contador, who is also building up his EOLOKometa team in the second division. The irony is that Contador is also shopping for big-time sponsors, and Drone Hopper is based just down the road from Contador’s hometown. Savio beat him to the punch; and after sealing the deal over the winter, the Italian is now looking at possibly joining the WorldTour for the first time since his first major pro team in the 1990s.
No wonder Savio is so excited about 2022 and beyond.
“It’s a new chapter in a long story,” Savio explains to Peloton after he lands back in Turin. “Drone Hopper is making a revolutionary type of drone, and they want the rest of the world to know about them. And they want to use cycling to promote that story.”
It could be a match made in WorldTour heaven for Savio, who was always forced to play second fiddle to the big Italian teams like Saeco, Fassa Bortolo and Liquigas, which looked down their noses at him back in the day. Savio could have the last laugh, as those teams are all shuttered, and Savio keeps on trucking.
“We have a contract for four years, and right now we have a budget to start as a ProTeam,” he says. “It’s stipulated to increase following the success of the company. The idea is to go to WorldTour, perhaps by 2024 or 2025.”
That would be just reward for Savio, who is one of the more charismatic characters in a sport full of strong personalities. With his tailored suits, well-coiffed white hair, trim mustache and permanent smile, Savio is always up for a chat. If you see him at a race, he’ll be the first to shake your hand.
“Ciao, Andrew!” he answers during our recent phone call.
“I believe I have found a rider who can be as good as Egan Bernal….” For Savio, the wheel keeps turning, and the passion keeps burning.