There were few riders in recent memory that were more highly prized than Ukranian Yaroslav Popovych. It is kind of hard to wrap my head around how dominant Popovych was during his final U23 years when he won an astonishing 35 races in two year with the Zoccorinese-Vellutex. The high mountains? He won the Giro della Valle d'Aosta twice in a row. The classics? He won the Paris-Roubaix Espoirs in 2001 in a massive solo breakaway. He was the U23 World RR Champion in 2001 in Lisbon after coming 2nd the year before in Pluoay. He won countless races and was head and shoulders above his competition. This wasn't taking advantage of easy fields. This was annihilation that is not seen very often.
There were some reasons for his dominance. His team was incredibly strong his riders such as Volodymr Bileka, Lorenzo Bernucci, Giampaolo Garuso and Domenico Pozzovivo, among others. Okay, I'm really beating around the bush here. A big part of his success was his preparation. By preparation, you should know what I'm referring to. Popovych was trained by Olivano Locatelli, a somewhat obsessive and very detailed director from Bergamo who wanted to win at all costs. At least one article has referred to him as "The Boss" because of his demanding, dictatorial nature with his riders but while his past actions, which we will be getting to, are unforgivable, he is a master tactician; obsessing over details just mere kilometers into a race.
As a rider, Locatelli wasn't by any means amazing. Just a decent amateur rider but his skills of reading a race and training riders were what made him one of the best directors in all of Italy. His favorite race of all is the Giro della Valle d'Aosta. He has been present for 35 Giri della Valle d'Aosta across the last 4 decades and has produced 9 winners during that time including the likes of Yaroslav Popovych (x2), Ivan Gotti (x2), Alessandro Bisolti, Wladimir Belli and most recently Fabio Aru, who won the race overall in 2011 and 2012. Other riders under Locatelli's coaching include Tomas Vaitkus, Giovanni Lombardi, Fabio Casartelli and ex-U23 World Champion Leonardo Giordani. Just read this article from 2002 about Locatelli and mostly about "Locatelli's Boys" that included Frigo, Savoldelli, Guerini, Mazzoleni. Basically a lineup of some of the most successful Italian racers of the late 90s and 00s but behind all of this success is a very present and obvious dark side.
After grooming Popovych for 2 years with Zoccorinese-Vellutex, Locatelli moved with the Ukranian talent to Landbouwkrediet along with Volodymyr Bileka, Yuri Metlushenko, Lorenzo Bernucci, Claudio Lucchini, Sergey Avdyeyev and Santo Anza. Basically, Locatelli was able to come to an agreement with Landbouwkrediet to bring on the majority of the team and because of his Italian ties, they would get a Giro invite and such. There were definitely two sides to the team though with the Belgians (mostly) sticking to the northern countries and Locatelli's Italian crew getting the bigger invites and most of the Giro spots. Locatelli still split time between the pro team and his amateur team, which switched names to Palazzago.
During the era when these riders were coming up with Locatelli, it was the dirtiest of the dirty times. More or less, doping was common place in the U23 peloton but it wasn't an accepted fact. Case in point, Volodymyr Bileka. According to the affidavit Bileka provided during the whole truth and reconciliation process, Bileka wasn't privy to any doping until he was on Landbouwkrediet and didn't make any attempts to try and dope until later on Discovery. Obviously, Bileka's case is anecdotal but it does shed a bit of light onto the situation. Bileka and Popo came from the same Ukranian village and while growing up and until the came to Italy, Bileka was always the stronger of the two. Popo started to make big gains and then when joining Vellutex with Locatelli, those gains kept coming because of EPO and other drugs.
Locatelli was the DS for Landbouwkrediet at both the 2002 and 2003 Giro when Popovych's star really began to shine. In his first grand tour at the ripe age of 22, Popovych went 12th overall. In 2003, he was blowing the doors off of people. Popo went 5th in Coppi e Bartali and 7th in Romandie before starting his 2nd Giro in as many years. Popovych was just incredible in the Giro. Only 3 times was he outside the top 25 on any stage and he clocked 8 top-10's on the way to a 3rd place overall behind superman Simoni and just 5 seconds behind Garzelli.
Just days after the Giro ended, Locatelli was arrested along with another DS for charged with supplying doping products to athletes. He was recorded on some wiretaps talking about how to circumvent doping controls Locatelli resigned from Landbouwkrediet with immediate effect while rider Santo Anza and former rider Domenico Romano were also snared in the investigation. So you would think that a disgraced director that was essentially caught red-handed would be banned from being around developing riders and not be able to involved with cycling, right? Uhh..well...I mean, it was the 2000s after all and just you know...fucked up times.
Within a year, Locatelli was back with U.C. Palazzago and directing riders. Locatelli's demanding style and nearly psychotic drive for success might have been the downfall for many of his riders. Once Popovych left his training, the Ukranian was never able to hit the heights that he achieved as a U23 or an early pro. Yeah, doping had something to do with it but Popovych went on to work with Ferrari and never lived up to his promise. Popovych wasn't the only one that Locatelli pretty much wrecked. Denys Kostyuk? He was the top rated U23 in 2003 when riding for Locatelli's team. And look where he is now. Riding with Kolss in a bunch of shitty races. I could list many more burnouts. Branislau Samoilau left the team in 2005 to ride with the Belarus National Team...I mean, how bad must Locatelli have been to go back to riding with your national team, which is also a brutal dictatorship. Luigi Sestili? He was one of the best U23s in 2004 and 2005. After he went pro? *Crickets*. These riders got off relatively lucky as there was a story of an ex-Locatelli rider that was basically doped to the gills in the 90s and have multiple heart attacks before being ending his career.
In more recent years, Locatelli has softened a bit and some of his riders have been able to transfer their talents much more successfully into the pro ranks instead of just being burnout shells of their former selves. Locatelli has nurtured Stefano Pirazzi, Fabio Aru and Diego Rosa through the U23 ranks. In the case of the latter two, Locatelli went and found them and trained them into some damn fine racers. Locatelli found Aru at a 'cross race while Rosa was a MTB racer that transitioned to the road.
Currently, Locatelli is still the director at Palazzago, now known as Pala Fenice this year. He was just recently at his 35th Giro della Valle d'Aosta but he wasn't leading the team to get his 10th overall victory. While not being in contention for the overall win, Locatelli was able to find some solace. Marco Chianese won the sprints classification while Simone Ravanelli won the first year U23 classification. Besides Valle d'Aosta, Pala Fenice has both of the Sterbini brothers, who are bound for Bardiani, as well as Marlen Zmorka, yet another Ukranian under Locatelli's tutelege who has been one of the strongest time trialists in the U23 ranks.
Locatelli is now in his 60s and the riders that he brought up in the 90s and early 00s are now retiring and some are getting into the director cars themselves. The cycle continues. Locatelli never had to serve any time for doping his riders and allowing them to avoid doping controls. Many of his riders have been doped for doping or been caught up in huge investigation yet Locatelli got off scot free. Even in the early 2000's, Locatelli was "applauding" the anti-doping effort but this was director double-speak that wiretaps and anyone involved with him would have known.
We sit here and applaud the U23 ranks being the clean generation yet the next time you look at a startlist, take a look at the name of the DS. Some are a fresh of breath air while others are just the same bullshit that got us into the doping situation in the first place.
Teams: Vellutex/Palazzago/Pala Fenice (amateur)
Mercanto Uno, Saeco and Landbouwkrediet (former pro teams)
Riders: Yaroslav Popovych, Lorenzo Bernucci, Domenico Pozzovivo, Stefano Pirazzi, Tomas Vaitkus, Giampaolo Caruso, Volodymyr Bileka, Wladimir Belli, Ivan Gotti, Fabio Aru, Diego Rosa, Fabio Casartelli, Leonardo Giordani, Paolo Savoldelli, Giovanni Lombardi, Giuseppe Guerini, Alberto Elli, Toto Commesso, Stefano Zanini, Alessandro Bisolti, Branislau Samoilau, Alberto Loddo
Pros: Training methods; methodical nature; tactical nuance
Cons: Pushing riders so hard that they are shells by the time they turn pros; history of doping riders and helping them evade testing; no remorse for prior actions