Trek-Segafredo’s press officer Tim Vanderjeugd and photographer Emily Maye capture ‘Behind the Stripes’ revealing General Manager Luca Guercilena in Milan. Luca spends over 250 days on the road managing the Trek-Segafredo team. Read along to find out how Luca balances his family and home life with his stressful job of running one of the largest cycling teams in the world.
Luca Guercilena prefers skylines to landscapes, the racketing of cities to the peacefulness of the countryside. He’s the type who always has the television on when in a hotel room – to wash away the muteness of the space. In noise Luca finds placidity.
The Guercilenas live in Cassinetta di Lugagnano in the western outskirts of Milan. It’s a great place to raise children, but not so much for a born-and-raised city boy like Luca. “I couldn’t fall asleep when we moved here,” he says with a grin, and his eyes meet his wife Laura’s. “Neither of us, actually. It was just too quiet for us. Right after we got married we lived in a house right beside the highway and we both slept like stones on the bottom of the ocean every night. It took some time to get used to the silence of the countryside here. But it’s a very good place to live. We moved here when the children came and we have grown to like it a lot.”
Luca uses the term ‘countryside’ rather loosely. Cassinetta may not have its own duomo (cathedral) yet it still feels very much like a part of the Milan metropolis. One of the historical navigli, a complex system of canals that connects Milan to the big lakes up north, runs right through the small town.
“Cassinetta is one of the places where the rich Milanese families would have luxurious country houses in the beginning of the modern period,” he says. “When they came here they could witness the pink marble for the construction of the duomo being transported over the canals from Mergozzo to the city.”
When Luca and his wife Laura bought the Cassinetta house there was a nice lawn out the back of the house. Now there are only tiles.
“Grass gives me stress,” Luca laughs, but I think he’s serious. “Sometimes it would be up to a half meter high. One day we just decided to get rid of it and make a paved terrace instead. No maintenance required. If you look at our house in Google Maps you can see we are the only family in the neighborhood without grass in the backyard.”
It’s easy to tell how much Luca misses the fast paced life of Milan, arguably Italy’s unofficial capital city. A city where banks and office buildings outnumber churches and where easy cash in rolled up in your pocket. A city with antique trams and honking cars, with food stands and designers bars, hipsters on skateboards and bespectacled aspiring models. The city of San Siro and La Scala, illustrious Milanese temples of sports and art.
The Guercilena house is a stereotypical family abode, and naturally, includes a family dog named Candy. Attenti al cane (beware of the dog) the sign at the doorbell reads. A charming, colorful wood stove is the centerpiece of the living room, with Candy’s bed beside it. There’s a comfortable sofa with white cushions and orange throw pillows. On the wall are romantic aquarelles, referencing the metropolises London, Paris, and New York and a large painting of Usain Bolt, demonstrating the family’s predilection for athletics.
Luca takes us downstairs to the taverna, the traditional Italian basement room where family gatherings are hosted. Five cycling jerseys are on display, most notably Fabian Cancellara’s 2012 Olympic Swiss jersey, which he signed Grazie per tutto (thank you for everything).
“I have plenty more jerseys,” says Luca. “They are all in boxes. I can’t have sixty jerseys on display, my wife would kill me,” he laughs.
Then he points to the benches and says: “This is where Trek Factory Racing was founded. Joe (Vadeboncoeur, VP Trek Bikes) and Simon (Thompson, Trek’s sports marketing manager) were sitting right there. This is where the team was conceived, you could say.”
Our plan is to head into Milan and meet Luca’s father Carlo, the designated chauffeur for the mayor of Milan. We’ll drive Laura’s bright yellow Fiat 500 to a subway station and take the metro into the center.
In the car, Luca talks about his youth and tells us that Carlo is not his biological father. “My father, Albino, died when I was only four years old. He was a voluntary ambulance driver. One night he agreed to take over the shift of a colleague and was killed in a traffic accident when a truck driver drove his ambulance off the road. I don’t have a lot of memories of him. I can still see him leave for work that night. My mother tells me I was very upset. I also remember when they brought the bad news to my mom that same night. ‘Go to sleep’, she kept telling me while crying.”
“My parents grew up in Lodi, an agricultural community forty kilometers southeast of Milan. They were poor and moved to the city in search of a better life.”
“My dad was 27 when he died, my mom was only 26. But she’s a fighter. She taught me to always do the most with what you have. Reach as far as your arms allow you.”
“She remarried seven years later. Carlo was ten years younger, so that must have been quite surprising for everyone, I think. I was very happy because Carlo would always bring treats for us. In a way, it felt like I had an older brother because of the age difference. He was very good to me. He was very supportive and he was the one that bought me my first bike.”
As we approach the city center, the road widens and traffic intensifies. If Cassinetta felt like a peaceful streamlet we’re clearly entering the ‘drainage basin’ of Milan now. We’re on a highway and suddenly bridges, connectors, and viaducts appear out of nowhere.
Luca starts pointing at things from the past – actually, he points at things that weren’t there when he grew up; empty space that has meandered into a concrete modernism of the metropolis.
“That road there,” he says, and points to a narrow paved street parallel to the noisy highway, “was the only way to the city center when I was a kid. Just about everything that you see here and now, was not there then. Milan has known an incredible boom in the eighties and nineties. The fashion industry flourished, there were huge events in sports, advertising, and the city expanded super fast.”
It’s not hard to see that a lot of the infrastructure could use some renovation, at least a fresh coat of paint.
“It’s sad, I think,” Luca says. “I don’t suffer from it, but I see it. The tailwind we had in the eighties has disappeared. Those times may never come back. A lot of people are struggling financially.”
The energy of large cities is overwhelming. Subways, in particular, unload their urban vibes on you in a split second. I notice that Luca picks up the pace as soon as we enter the underground tunnel system. It’s clear he’s in his element.
“When I was studying sport science at the University of Milan I would cross the whole city on the subway every day. Almost two hours each way.”
Straight out of college Luca managed a junior team in Milan. He also joined the carabinieri, Italy’s military police. Rumor has it his This is the line mantra when setting out boundaries of internal team rules originated from his police days. Luca is a firm believer that discipline is the bridge between setting goals and achieving them.
We arrive at the 15th century Castello Sforzesco, the immense castle built by the Duke of Milan. This is where the iconic Milano-Sanremo, the first Monument on the cycling calendar, starts every March.
Luca tells us the story of how he left the carabinieri shortly after setting foot in the famous Mapei center, the ne plus ultra for sports scientists. “We were there to conduct some tests with my development team and one thing led to another. The late Aldo Sassi asked me to join the Mapei team, which at that time was composed of professional and U23 riders all together. It was the team that Fabian (Cancellara), Pippo (Pozzato), (Laszlo) Bodrogi, (Luca) Paolini and Michael Rogers would eventually join.”
Luca continued in the Mapei system for ten years, eventually becoming a trainer and sport director for the QuickStep team where he worked closely with Italian superstar Paolo Bettini.
As we walk the streets of Milan, Luca describes the desire of Italians to look good.
“It’s not hard to tell who’s a tourist,” he smiles when overlooking the square we have entered. “For generations, we have been told to look our very best. We have been raised with the idea of class if you like. But don’t get me wrong: Italians don’t want to impress; they want to belong. You don’t want to be the t-shirt in a room full of dress shirts.”
Practically every Italian that fast-paces the streets of downtown Milan is wearing sunglasses – and there seems to be an unwritten rule about when to wear them inside. Not everyone pushes them to the top of their head when inside. Black seems to be the go-to color for clothing, even for a fashion-focused city as Milan.
Luca discovers he has forgotten his Oakleys in the car and hisses a mild profanity, something that is rich in the Italian language. Italy is still a very Catholic country and most ‘full-grown’ swearwords have a mild equivalent that is socially acceptable.
“That’s the famous green dragon,” he says while pointing out a fresh water fountain. It’s a green column in cast iron with water that spouts out of a dragon’s head. Underneath, the Milan coat of arms, a red cross on a white field, completes the decoration. Luca breaks the romanticism of fountains. “As a kid, I remember seeing drug addicts washing their needles in them,” he chuckles.
Luca is a fan of AC Milan, one of two major soccer teams in the city, so it cannot be a coincidence that we walk by the fan shop, which happens to be right across from store of the ‘Gazzetta dello Sport’, the famous pink sports newspaper that is also the organizer of the Giro d’Italia and a series of Italian one-day races.
Then, we arrive at the Duomo, Milan’s architectural masterpiece, the Gothic cathedral dedicated to St. Mary of the Nativity. The sight of the building is overwhelming and it inspired Mark Twain to write: “A very world of solid weight, and yet it seems … a delusion of frostwork that might vanish with a breath!…They say that the Cathedral of Milan is second only to St. Peter’s at Rome. I cannot understand how it can be second to anything made by human hands.”
Also Luca, who had been an absolute chatterbox until now, quiets at the sight of the church with a forest of pinnacles and spires on the roof.
“Beautiful, isn’t it,” he whispers after some time. “I don’t come here often enough, I must admit. Even when I lived in the center as a child, my mom and I would only come here on special occasions, for example, to buy new Sunday clothes.”
We proceed towards the Via Monte Napoleone, the most famous upscale shopping street in Milan. All major Italian fashion brands have their flagship store in this narrow street. The sidewalks are slim as a catwalk and I cannot shake the thought that the women we encounter are all models (or aspiring to become one, at the least).
Luca calls his father Carlo to tell him we are a minute away from the Palazzo Marino, across from the Scala opera, where the municipality of Milan is located. Carlo is the chauffeur of Giuliano Pisapia, the left-wing mayor of the city, and Luca jokes that Carlo has reached his professional summit as far as chauffeur careers go.
Carlo is waiting for us in front of the 16th century, yet very timeless façade of the Palazzo. He waves when he sees us approaching. Luca and his father hug and it’s clear that they are very fond of each other.
Carlo is a kind-hearted and stylish man with snow-white hair and a beard, impeccably dressed, with a pair of reading glasses on a cord resting on his tie. Like Luca, he stands with his feet shoulder width apart and his arms crossed. He gazes at Luca with contentment and offers to give us a tour of the Palazzo, which is not open for tourists.
The palace, built for the banker Tommaso Marino, is a good example of non-religious, nouveau riche architecture. In the large room where the city council has its meetings a very large painting of Saint Ambrose, the patron saint of the city, looms on the wall.
One by one Carlo’s colleagues peeks out of their offices to salute Luca. “You have changed so much, Luca,” they say. “Carlo is always telling us about your adventures with the team.”
“I’m very glad to visit,” Luca replies. “I have never been inside the Palace. It’s impressive.”
“It’s where I spend so much time and it’s good that you come here, Luca. You are always welcome here,” offers Carlo.
During our visit, Carlo has been holding his car keys in his hand, never once putting them in his pocket. He’s a pro.
As we exit the building via the center court, Luca spots a small, white Fiat in the far corner, the car that Carlo drives for the mayor. Luca points out, “This mayor is very leftist and he got elected with a program of budget discipline. It makes sense that he doesn’t have a luxurious car.”
Like his father, Luca may very well be at his professional peak. The amateur rider became a member of the carabinieri, became a coach in the junior ranks, became a WorldTour sports director and eventually became the general manager of one of the biggest teams in the world.
“Yet,” says Luca. “I don’t want to call myself a ‘self-made man’. We are all made up from others, and in my case, Carlo was very much one of those people, together with my mother. The greatest gift you can give yourself is honoring your calling. It’s when you feel the most alive you can be. I have been climbing the ranks, yes, but I was never content with where I was. Like my mother used to say: always do the most with what you have.”
As we walk through the stunning Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a beautiful glass-vaulted shopping arcade between the Duomo and the Scala opera, Luca talks about his time as an amateur rider.
“It was Carlo that introduced me to bikes,” Luca says, and knowing him as a great storyteller, I swiftly flip open my notebook. “I remember one weekend we rode bikes to Morimondo. I was on an old bike that had belonged to my grandfather. I suffered a lot but I liked it and soon I started to race.”
Within Trek Factory Racing, Luca is known as one of the most competitive team members. When our riders narrowly miss out on victory, he’s the grumpiest of all. Sometimes it takes him until the next day for his mood to settle down.
I ask him about the highlight of his ‘career’. He laughs, as we sit down for a drink and a beautiful plate of antipasti.
“I didn’t have the engine, you must know. I won a school triathlon one time, can that be my highlight?”
“One day I was part of a breakaway. Behind me, two guys suddenly overlap wheels and they go down. But in his crash, one of the guys breaks off my derailleur. My race was over, but the organizer felt so sorry for me that he gave me a live chicken as a consolation price.”
Luca packed up his cycling dream at the age of 23, at a time when it’s now-or-never to make it to the pro level. He has dozens of stories to share and he does so in his typical English laced with Italian ‘spices’. His English is far from perfect, but amongst the muddled words a high intelligence simmers through.
Some of Luca’s (mostly dateless) tales seem to come out of the 1930’s – not 1990’s – an era when cyclists encountered plenty of misadventures.
“One time, I hadn’t checked my brakes before the race. First turn comes up and I go straight out of the corner and into a shop. I saved myself by jumping off the bike backwards and landed flat on my butt. I strained my gluteus, which turned blue like a blueberry,” he says and it’s clear he’s enjoying telling the story. “They took me to the hospital, but for some reason my friend went straight to my mother, who was always so fearful when I raced. He carried a small plastic bag full of my clothes. When he rang the door, he didn’t really know what to say. ‘It’s Luca…He…’ My mom passed out on-the-spot before he could say another word!”
Before we head to his mother’s place for lunch (and have the possibility to fact check Luca’s accounts) we stop by the bike shop of Fabio Monti. Fabio’s father Mario was the mechanic of Jacques Anquetil in the 1960’s and managed the bike team where Luca was a member.
“None of our group made it to the pros,” Luca says to Fabio. “But we sure as hell had a lot of fun, didn’t we?”
Fabio is surrounded with dozens of bikes, mostly town bikes. His tools are all piled up on the counter space. He seems to know all about Trek Factory Racing and asks Luca a ton of questions. He’s not only interested in Cancellara, Mollema and Schleck, but asks about the lesser-known riders as well.
Next to the atelier there is a space filled with memorabilia from the past. There are letters that Mario Monti exchanged with Anquetil, photos and newspaper clippings, a heap of cycling jerseys, including one of Paolo Bettini and one of the 2011 Leopard Trek team, and some anachronistic VHS tapes.
“Lots of memories”, Luca contemplates. “For Mario the most important thing wasn’t to get victories. He was passionate about us kids in the first place. If anything, he kept us off the streets and out of trouble”
We walk past the pea green building where Luca grew up. It’s a three-story construction with large sunshade curtains at every terrace. “It looks different now,” Luca says. “None of these buildings were painted back then. Everything you see was grey concrete. I remember all the names of the kids that lived in our building. There were many kids. And there was a continuous sort of cold war with the kids from the next building. We would get into fights a lot.”
But there was a lot of happiness as well.
“I remember how my mom in the weekends would move the TV-set to the bathroom and open the little bathroom window so we could eat on the miniature porch and watch television. We didn’t have much, but I never felt that I was missing something.”
Luca recalls more things from his youth and a lot seems to come down to an illustration of his mother’s combativeness, which Luca inherited without a doubt and today uses to inspire the TFR riders.
“She was a young widow and had no choice but to be frugal. She bought me shoes that were a little too big, so I wouldn’t outgrow them too quickly. We would buy shoulder ham, not the expensive prosciutto. And with her small salary she was able to pay for university. She didn’t accept her destiny. I could have failed, but I didn’t. I am forever grateful to her.”
He tells me he took her on a nice trip to Estepona in the south of Spain when he received his first salary.
Luca’s mother Daniela is a treat; a delightful and gracious lady who unquestionably can fill a room with her presence. She’s wearing make-up and a pretty pink dress. “Don’t be mistaken,” Luca says, but not loud enough that she can hear it. “She’s a real General. She kicks my ass when I don’t call her for a few days.”
Daniela and Carlo, who’s presently at work, live in the downstairs apartment of a red two-story building. There are several shelves with books and tiny photo frames. A large photograph of Luca’s biological father Albino, running, hangs on the wall – the resemblance with Luca is striking. Albino was a tall, strong man with dark hair and powerful eyebrows governing his face; exactly like his son.
A picture of Luca as a boy, leaning against an ambulance with Albino Guercilena’s name written on the door to commemorate his death, hangs under the picture of Albino.
“You must be starving,” says Daniela, as she serves pasta onto our plates. I’m about to protest, then remember Luca telling us that his mother always prepares immense quantities of food when she has guests. He also told us that she runs all her errands by bike because she doesn’t have a driver’s license. Fortunately, she’s married to the chauffeur of Milan’s mayor.
Daniela has prepared cotoletta alla milanesa, a traditional recipe for breaded veal that apparently goes back to the time when Milan was ruled by the Austrians. There are several kinds of vegetables to accompany the meat: zucchini, red peppers, eggplant and potatoes.
Luca doesn’t eat any of the vegetables, which I am familiar with from the many evenings we spent at dinner during races. I ask Daniela why he doesn’t like them. She laughs: “My late husband used to tell me during the pregnancy to eat a lot of vegetables, for the health of the baby. I think I ate so many that he doesn’t like them anymore.”
Luca tells her we walked past the house where they used to live. She enjoys hearing him talk. There’s a unique energy between mother and son. After all, they spent seven years with just the two of them before Daniele married Carlo.
“She was very protective of me,” Luca remarks.
She doesn’t deny it. “It’s absolutely true,” she says. “One time I asked a friend what could be wrong with Luca because he would never climb trees. ‘How many times have you allowed him to climb trees?’, my friend replied. Il figlio unico è il figlio della paura. An only child is always raised with fright. But, Luca, you didn’t turn out so bad, did you?”
Luca remains quiet.
“I am very proud of Luca, not because he’s the general manager of your team, but because he’s able to do what he likes to do. The bike is a symbol of hard work, I think, so the choices Luca made are not surprising. He only had the engine of a Fiat, not a Ferrari, but he had vision.”
We eat to the rhythm of Milan: fast and furious. After the main course, there is fruit, quickly followed by apricot crostata. “Only at weddings one has to wait between courses,” she grins. I reminisce about the meal Emily and I enjoyed with Markel Irizar’s grandmother.
I ask Daniela why she chose the name Luca for her son.
“Honestly, I preferred the name Matteo. But in the apartment where we lived – and that you have seen – there was a mother who would yell ‘Matteo’ all the time at her boy that was playing outside. I started hating that name.”
She says Luca was always somewhat anxious as a young boy. “He was always strangely worried about me. There were times when he didn’t want to go to his friend’s birthday party because I would be alone then.”
As Emily and I gather our things, Daniela hands us both a jar of homemade prune jam. Luca objects and says we both have long travels ahead of us and we can’t take the risk of the jar exploding in our suitcases. But Daniele doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Instead, she signals Luca to be silent and asks Emily and me to remind her son sporadically to give her a call.
The sun lowers over the Milanese suburbs and at the Guercilena house there’s a lot of commotion. There’s a 5K color run going on in Robecco, the town next to Cassinetta. A color run is a mass running event where participants start with a clean white t-shirt and get showered with colorful powders along the course. The whole family will participate and Laura is sorting out bikes for Emily and I to ride to the start.
Dennis, Luca’s 17-year-old son named after the comic strip ‘Dennis the Menace’, is a very fast runner. He’s tall, like Luca and the grandfather he never knew. Alice, the 11-year-old daughter of the household, is no less of a natural talent. Both kids are lean and athletic.
Laura also is very fit. She’s well prepared for the color run and wears a small pouch on her waist to protect everyone’s cell phones, keys, etc. from the colored powder.
“I’m probably the slowest runner in the family,” Luca jokes. “With my job I don’t have time to exercise a lot. This is the most complicated job I have ever had. I have this idea of what this team should look like and Trek has always given me free rein, but I have to be conscientious what is possible with the budget, the staff, and riders we have. But all in all, I love it.
“Looking back at where I came from, I am proud of the road that I have traveled but I still want to show my capabilities.” He’s a man who knows how to balance idealism and realism with a continuous smile on his face.
Tonight, however, running alongside his family in a cloud of yellow, orange, green and blue food-grade cornstarch, Luca is an undivided husband and father. The stressful demands of managing one of the biggest cycling teams in the world are momentarily forgotten.