Stefano Stagni slept for ten hours straight after winning the Maratona dles Dolomites, one of Italy’s iconic gran fondos, last month. When he woke up, Stagni found that his phone was inundated with messages and notifications, most of which were accusing the 27-year-old engineer of cheating his way to victory.
“On Sunday 3 July, I won the Marathon of the Dolomites, which for us cyclists is like New York for runners,” the Italian amateur cyclist told Corriere della Sera last week.
“Upon arrival I cried, ate, celebrated and then slept ten hours straight. When I woke up, my phone froze with too many messages: some were compliments, most of them insults. I was stunned.”
The Maratona dles Dolomites is arguably the mountainous Italian region’s signature ride for adventurous amateurs. Established in 1987, the brutal gran fondo takes in six passes over 2,000 metres, including the fearsome and legendary Passo Giau (9.9km at an average of 9.3 percent), with the ‘long route’ managing to rack up over 4,200 metres of climbing in 138km.
The event is popular for a reason: 9,000 riders take to the start every year, the equivalent of a whole county is closed to allow for the full gran fondo experience, and TV helicopters buzz around the course, providing live footage for the Italian national broadcaster Rai.
In 2017, road.cc’s founder Dave Atkinson and off-road.cc’s then-editor Jon Woodhouse were lucky (or foolish) enough to take on the Maratona, with Dave describing all the pain and suffering on those famous Italian climbs as “worth it for the views, for the experience”… oh, and the local food and wine.
While Dave covered the 138km course in just under eight hours five years ago, Stagni, an engineer and former volleyball player who clocks up 20,000km a year when he gets off work, finished his ride in a staggering four hours and 27 minutes.
The sheer pace of Stagni’s ride – a minute and a half clear of his nearest competitor and seven minutes ahead of anyone beyond the podium – combined with a seemingly miraculous recovery on the flat roads between some of the climbs after being dropped, prompted more than a few eyebrows to be raised during and after the event.
His time on the day’s key climb, the Passo Giau, was jaw-droppingly impressive for an amateur: only four minutes slower than Egan Bernal at the 2021 Giro d’Italia, and three and a half minutes slower than Vincenzo Nibali in 2016.
The conspiracy theories only gathered pace after footage (below) emerged of Stagni pushing a seemingly random spot on his handlebars before accelerating on the steep climb to the finish. His bike was then swiftly removed from the finish area as he was being interviewed by Rai, adding more fuel to the sceptics’ fire.
Suspicions of motor doping in Italian amateur cycling certainly aren’t new. In 2019, two participants in a race in the Veneto region were accused by other entrants of using hidden motors in their bikes. The pair refused to have the bikes checked by the organisers and fled before Carabinieri officers arrived.
In 2017, organisers of another amateur race in Lombardy said that they had found a motor hidden in the seatpost of a bike belonging to Alessandro Andreoli through thermal imaging, although he made off before a mechanic could undertake a physical check of it, claiming he had a wedding to attend.
With clouds hanging over his victory almost as soon as he had crossed the line, the Strava file of Stagni’s winning ride was then flagged as suspicious after 600 users reported irregularities, with one describing the performance as “unexplainable… without providing details from Silicon Valley”.
“I’m honest,” the 27-year-old responded after Corriere della Sera asked him about the plethora of accusations following his victory, “If I watched, as an external user, the video circulating on the web and it were of you, I would say: yes, this guy cheated. But is not so.”
When questioned about his unusual hand movements on the Mür dl Giat climb, he said: “Honestly I don’t know, it was an automatic, nervous hand gesture. But do you think I would be so stupid as to turn on a scooter live on Rai, a stone’s throw from the finish line?
“It is true that on Colle Santa Lucia to get back into the group I did a crazy ride,” he admits. “The other times are good but normal. On the Giau I took four minutes longer than Nibali on the Giro, on the Falzarego the same time as in 2021.”
He then described the Strava reports as the work “of haters, of envious colleagues. I wrote to Strava in vain to clarify my position. The original file is available to sceptics,” he says.
And the reason behind the disappearing bike? “In April, I suffered a theft after a race. The bike, which I had lost sight of in Corvara, has been secured: if the organizers had asked me, I would have had it examined.”
Stagni’s wish may come true next year. Following the maelstrom of bad publicity surrounding the event, the Maratona’s organisers have committed to using x-ray scanners to tackle suspected motor doping during the 2023 gran fondo.
However, Stagni – just like many of his professional counterparts when questioned about possible cheating – claims the whole affair boils down to one thing: jealousy.
“Italy is the country where those who arrive 200th think that the 199 in front of them have cheated, he says. “But I have a clear conscience, I pedal to have fun.”
Ryan joined road.cc as a news writer in December 2021. He has written about cycling and some ball-centric sports for various websites, newspapers, magazines and radio. Before returning to writing about cycling full-time, he completed a PhD in History and published a book and numerous academic articles on religion and politics in Victorian Britain and Ireland (though he remained committed to boring his university colleagues and students with endless cycling trivia). He can be found riding his bike very slowly through the Dromara Hills of Co. Down.