Cards, sprinters, support riders. And winning as a team!

Break a leg by Alex Zanardi

Have you ever played buraco? You probably know it’s a Rummy-style card game. And you might even know it has something to do with “pots” of 11 cards stacked to the side to be used when all your cards are played.

Like in all card games, luck can make the difference. When the game is played in pairs, any fortune your opponents might enjoy can probably be counteracted by you and your partner getting your strategy right. In essence, you need to work out how to help his or her hand, to make things better for you. It really comes down to knowing when to strike and when to sacrifice. Sometimes, taking the cards discarded by your opponents, to make a three-card sequence, can really open things up. And then your partner can exploit those cards.

Sprinters or support riders?

Such tactics might seem useless at that moment. But they might also set your partner up for a killer move shortly afterwards. Yet, that mysterious 11-card pot, just waiting to be taken, often proves too much of a temptation for most players. To get it, you have to finish your cards. And drawing cards without any assurances seems to take you away from the goal.

Well, when you are in a team, there comes a time when it is vital to understand who can be the sprinter and who needs to be happy as a support rider.

I haven’t included a cycling metaphor here by accident, but we’ll come back to it later. In buraco, it is the exception, not the rule, who knows instinctively when to make a sacrifice for the good of the team. Games are lost because of this. Then, perhaps, a few light-hearted insults fly, blaming your bad luck or cursing your opponents for being jammy… We hardly ever really think that, even though it’s only a game, we could have played our hand better. This makes me ask a question: “Is there some connection between this and what happens in matches and races every Sunday?”


In football, there might be a crazy attempt to score, when a cross to a team-mate would have won the game. In volleyball, perhaps a spike is blocked by your opponents, when a team-mate was calling for the ball. What about in Formula 1, when a driver holds off his faster team-mate, whose rival for the title is able to get away, making it impossible for anyone to catch him.



Cycling versus buraco

In many sports, we find the same story: the final whistle or the chequered flag brings things to an end, but the key people could have had a different impact on the game or race.  In many cases, they could have turned the result in favour of their team-mates.


There might well be more than one sport where this doesn’t really happen, but as hard as I try, thinking about the most watched sports, I can only think of one: cycling. Hence, the metaphor not being accidental.


Given I’m partly reflecting on how powerful education, in the broad sense, can be, it is quite strange that I’ve ended up talking about a sport that, at least in the collective imagination, is practically a synonym for doping. Let me make something clear: doping has been maliciously attacking and infecting sport at all levels practically as far back in the mists of time as one can see.


In cases where people have pushed forward with investigations into the powerful lobbies backed by the pharmaceutical houses or by major vested interests – even State interests, as in Russiagate – it has bubbled to the surface.

Today, cycling is definitely not the worst sport for doping. This is hardly surprising as the checks are done seriously and have been for years.

So, which sports top this list? No, I’m not going down that path here. Let me just note one intriguing figure and then get back to the thrust of my article. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) recently published rankings that show the sport with the highest percentage of doped athletes is bridge! The figure is as high as 22 per cent of players. Next is wrestling, with 19 per cent, followed by American football at over 5 per cent and so on. Even noble athletics performs worse than the much-maligned cycling, at 1.1 per cent.


I’m not interested in defending a sport that has plenty of issues. Yet, as I already touched on, there is something in cycling that relates to the question of education and I feel we should explore it. I’m back to the idea I got from buraco, just to be clear. Put more generally, I’m talking about our desire to constantly seek personal victory. We always want to be the sprinters, not the support riders.



Team victory, shared victory

The enormous respect for the hierarchy in cycling is not merely a contractual issue or a question simply of the internal balance on the teams. No, the point is it comes from a clear ethical sense that is part of cycling and that soon draws in and educates the latest young bucks.


Why does a cyclist – even a top one – sacrifice himself to help a team-mate or an attack, without any personal ambition, simply to create problems for his team leader’s rivals? Why does a good cyclist work incredibly hard for hundreds of kilometres, using up all the energy reserves in his body, just so the sprinter in his team can have a go?


The answer lies in attitudes more than words. It can be seen in that exultant rider in the middle of the group who has been caught a few metres from the line as he watches his team-mate cross the finish line first.

His face shows the same joy as if he was the one to actually win. Indeed, if you ask him why he’s happy, the answer will be because he achieved that, winning with his team. He’s basically saying that if you can’t understand this fundamental aspect, then you really don’t understand cycling.

There might well be other sports, but looking at the numerous sports in which selfishness always cause the same problems, cycling is the antithesis of the selfishness that governs the many crooked paths in our lives. Cycling provides us with lessons of sincere, true faithfulness – lessons we can learn plenty from. Ultimately, these moments of shared joy simply have to be discovered.


Sometimes, all we need is for someone to tell us about it and teach us to appreciate it. If everyone ends up saying anyone who helps a team-mate is a fool because victory is personal, then we’ll start believing this. But, when you grow up in a world where you win and lose together, things change. When your team-mates are as happy as your team leader who actually crossed the line first, then even the new youngster will enthusiastically realise such behaviour is important, something to nourish and protect.

Educate first

Cycling is merely a metaphor here. It’s the umpteenth I’ve used to justify my reasons because I believe education is the most powerful way to solve a thousand problems, even problems that are far more important than a cycle race. This is why we must never forget how critical it is for a community to constantly invest in education.


It might seem a bit of a stretch to make the leap I’ve just made. “What does deciding who crosses the finish line first have to do, on many levels, with what determines the events in our lives?” Excuse me for saying this, but I see a connection. I’m referring to something more complex, but I feel the question of education is pertinent and sadly contemporary.


Information is now so varied and widely available that we feel anyone can quickly find the truth. I think the opposite is true. While we know more, our critical sense isn’t as sound and as astute as that of our grandparents. We ask fewer questions and we’re heavily influenced by slogans. We have a dire need for proper education to restore our critical sense to assess what we see before us. Undoubtedly, this is merely an opinion. But taking this point of view, I feel civic education lessons are sorely needed, having once been part of the school curriculum. Perhaps because it kept young people awake to certain things.


It influences our decisions, which might be different if we thought a bit more. Let me give you an example, which might sound funny. I believe that it is our own convenient need to believe in miracles and quick fixes for everything that has doped the world of politics, ruling out anyone who seriously and pragmatically campaigns for the common good.



Small sacrifices, major progress

The fact is, we aren’t able to see small sacrifices as fundamental steps on the path to making progress together. When someone tells the people about the problems facing the country and what’s needed to achieve a common goal, well, that person hardly gains support. But if he or she ignores the countless problems and promises to cut taxes and guarantee welfare and well-being for everyone, well, that person is highly likely to be in government soon.


And then people will say they’re all the same, that politics is corrupt. Nobody seems willing to admit that we might also be guilty. After all, assuming a proper option for governance is out there or has been around in recent times, the facts tell us that, as a whole, we haven’t been able to identify it.


The only mitigating factor is that we haven’t been able to educate people to do this. We haven’t been given or received the right stimuli to improve our spirit of observation, our critical sense and our ability to exercise our right to choose.


Ultimately, it really is about choosing what is truly best for us. This is where the confusion lies because we live in a world in which, all too often, the only models to aspire to are about winning. In other words, we learn to choose solely what is best for “me”. However, in this we forget that, being better off but surrounded by a community filled with discomfort will never allow us to do well. Doing well or feeling good is not hiding behind closed doors, ignoring the problems facing others, but going out and helping to solve them. It is about giving up something in the hope that everyone has something. Doing well is about smiling back at someone who was already smiling at you, instead of looking jealously at you.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to be a sprinter in life or, at least, hoping to have the chance to be one. But, in truth, it is something that only few people achieve. We need to sweeten our dream through our small choices that can make our destiny as a community great, so that we can win as a team. This, if you allow it, is far more important and valuable.

Support riders, sprinters, sport, nutrition: all related

“Zanardi, but what does any of this have to do with Enervit, where everything is about sport, nutrition and supplements?” someone might wonder reading my words. “It matters, because everything is connected,” I’d say. To win in sport and in life – whether what is at stake is fleeting glory, professional success or even simply peace of mind – you have to go through this.

You have to work as a team, you have to sprint for yourself or recognise the sprinter who it is worth straining for, and then make your best effort in the hope that he or she makes it. That he or she wins for us.

If, like in buraco, the only thing that matters for us is to go and get that pot, then all we have left is to bark at and against everyone. And that is poverty, but not monetary poverty. We have lost the ability to be self-critical and to admit that, ultimately, we are also partly to blame. We have to accept it would have been nice to be sprinters, but also that we could have been better support riders.

Alessandro Zanardi, detto Alex, nasce a Bologna il 23 ottobre 1966. Sposato con Daniela, ha un figlio, Niccolò. A 14 anni inizia la sua avventura automobilistica nelle gare dei Go-Kart. In otto anni vince tre titoli nazionali e un europeo. Nel 1993 è in Formula 1 con la Lotus. Nel 1996 entra a far parte del Team di Chip Ganassi nella serie americana CART World Championship Series. Ci resta giusto il tempo di vincere due titoli Mondiali. Nel 1999 torna in Formula 1 a bordo, però, di una Williams. Nel 2001, sul circuito tedesco di Lausitzring, in Germania, un terribile incidente lo priva delle gambe. Potrebbe fermarsi, invece è la svolta. Nel giro di pochi anni, le sue strabilianti imprese lo eleveranno all’olimpo dei grandi campioni dello sport. Nel 2007 scopre l’handbike e si iscrive alla Maratona di New York: il quarto posto è tutto suo. Nel tempo, forza di volontà, entusiasmo e cura nei dettagli sono le qualità che affina sempre di più per fregiarsi del titolo di pluricampione olimpico nell’handbike. A Londra 2012, infatti, porta a casa 2 ori individuali nella cronometro e in quella in linea. E a Rio 2016, alla soglia dei 50 anni, grazie al lavoro svolto sotto la guida del suo preparatore atletico, Francesco Chiappero, e da tutto lo staff di Equipe Enervit, stravince nella cronometro e nella staffetta. Intanto, tra un’Olimpiade e l’altra, raccoglie altri ori nelle diverse edizioni del Para-cycling World Champioship. Tutto questo, senza mai trascurare il suo primo amore: le auto. Nel 2014 accetta di rivestire il ruolo di Ambasciatore di BMW nel mondo e rimette i panni di pilota nel Campionato Blancpain GT Sprint con la BMW Z4 GT3 ufficiale. Prosegue l’attività para-ciclistica e conquista la Coppa del mondo, il titolo di Campione mondiale nella gara a cronometro e in quella a squadre a Greenville, Stati Uniti. Ma il 2014 sigla anche l’importante incontro tra Alex Zanardi ed Enervit, che seguirà il campione nel suo debutto nella gara più massacrante del Triathlon: l’Ironman World Championship Final di Kona, alle Hawaii. Lo chiuderà in 9 ore, 47 minuti e 14 secondi, classificandosi al 273esimo posto su oltre 2000 partecipanti. C’è dell’altro, però: lo sfidante evento si trasformerà nell’occasione giusta per chiedere ad Alex di diventare Ambasciatore Enervit. Nel 2017 completa l’Ironman di Barcellona in meno di 9 ore. Nel 2018 conquista l’ennesimo oro nella cronometro nel Para-cycling World Champioship. E all’Ironman di Cervia, il tabellone sulla linea d’arrivo registra 8 ore, 26 minuti e 6 secondi: record mondiale per gli atleti con disabilità, all’interno del circuito Ironman. Mentre la classifica generale lo vede al 5° posto assoluto su quasi 3000 atleti in gara. Nel 2019, a Emmen, in Olanda, vince il titolo di Campione mondiale di paraciclismo. Una manciata di giorni dopo è all’IRONMAN Italia di Cervia per una sfida che sa di impossibile: cimentarsi nell’IRONMAN Full distance e il giorno successivo tentare il 70.3. Lo scopo? Verificare, insieme all’Equipe Enervit, il recupero e lo stress, in vista di Tokyo 2020. L’impresa riesce alla grande. Batte se stesso e stabilisce il nuovo record mondiale nella Full distance in 8 ore 25 minuti e 30 secondi e termina il 70.3, registrando il tempo di 4 ore 31 minuti e 38 secondi. La leggenda continua.