Dispatch: Massimo Cigana’s Metamorphosis

Cigana chats about his journey from broken cyclist to reborn triathlete and one of the speediest runners in the men’s professional ranks.

Photo: Getty Images

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A bike racer from the age of 10, Italy’s Massimo Cigana gained cycling acclaim in his late teens and twenties, winning numerous international competitions and placing second in the 1998 Giro d’Italia as an elite amateur. Subsequently he turned pro and in 2000 earned an invitation to race alongside Marco Pantani as a member of team Mercatone Uno. Poised as one of the world’s top up-and-coming professional cyclists, Cigana’s career path took an unfortunate turn in June 2001 when a horrific crash during a race left him with significant injuries (fractures of two vertebrae, his pelvis, coccyx, radius and ulna, plus major nerve and muscle damage in his legs) and immobilized him in bed for more than two months. After intense rehabilitation, including endless hours walking, running and swimming in the pool, he returned to competitive cycling in late 2001 and raced through 2003. Ultimately, though, he pulled the plug on his pro cycling career, as his legs continued to give him trouble. But Cigana was unwilling to let his competitive spirit and athletic ambitions be crushed, and with the encouragement of his rehab coach he turned his focus to swimming and running and in 2004 raced his first triathlon.

In the decade since, Cigana has earned countless podium finishes across every distance in triathlon and duathlon, including the title of Ironman 70.3 Austria winner (2008), the Alpe d’Huez Triathlon win (2009) and a record-breaking four victories at the iconic Laguna Phuket Triathlon, often using his now finely honed foot-speed to run his way through a field of rivals. Now 40, Cigana shows no sign of slowing down; in fact, he recently raced four weekends straight, tying for the win at the Laguna Phuket Triathlon, finishing fourth at Challenge Laguna Phuket, earning eighth at Challenge Bahrain and capping off the quartet of competitions with his first ever solo marathon (Maratona di Reggio Emilia), which he finished in 2:33:53. In a nod to the New Year, I checked in with Cigana to learn more about his metamorphosis into a new athlete, from broken cyclist to reborn triathlete and one of the speediest runners in the men’s professional ranks.

Triathlete.com: Explain why you think you’ve had such success as a triathlete, especially on the run?

Cigana: I was born to do sports and for this reason I have to thank my parents who gave me a great engine. Since I was young I have been very competitive in every sport that I have done in a very short time. The run was very easy for me, maybe because the gesture of push and pull of the legs is very similar to that of cycling, even if the muscles are antagonist. I have used my legs and ankles a lot in my life because I have done more than 600,000 km on the bike (like 15 laps of the earth!), so they are well trained. The swim is a different story. Unfortunately it‘s not good because I never swam in my life until the age of 30, and I think it is the only sport that if you don’t do when you are a child it’s impossible to do well. It’s 90 percent technique and it’s only possible to learn the sensibility of the swimmer when you are young. For this reason I’m not and I will never be a good swimmer.

Triathlete.com: You raced 29 events in 2014–finishing with four in a row! Does your experience with stage racing in cycling help you race such high volume now?

Cigana: Yes, I compete a lot but the recovery has always been my main strength. I need to compete a lot to find the form. Also, when I was a cyclist, the more I competed the stronger I went. I was born for the big stage race. Racing is always the best training, because the effort of racing is often difficult to endure mentally in training. For this reason I prefer to train less and compete more. Often I compete in foot races or cycling races when I do not do triathlons as well. I use short races to improve my speed and I really like to compete. For me sport is pure passion and fun. Definitely my past career has greatly influenced my competitiveness in triathlon. Compared to cycling, I find triathlon much easier. It seems impossible, but it is so. Only those who have done both can actually understand.

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Triathlete.com: What are your best tips for recovery?

Cigana: My best advice for recovery is to listen to your own body. If you are tired and your heartbeats remain low, rest and do not train. These are signals that your body sends you and you have to listen. Most important is eating a healthy diet and drinking a lot of water, which detoxifies your body of toxins. The food is crucial both for performance and for recovery.

Triathlete.com: What is your outlook or philosophy on life that enabled you to start over as a triathlete after your cycling career ended? I imagine you must be quite an optimist–as other people in the same situation might have given up on athletics altogether!

Cigana: Surely the end of my cycling career was not so easy, because it had been my life for 20 years. I knew my quality and I knew that I could have become a great protagonist of the big stage races, especially the Tour de France, which was perfect for my characteristics and for the hot climate. But the accident prevented me. Yes, I am optimistic and I don’t beat myself down easily. I always see the positive side of things. I do not believe much in luck or bad luck–I believe in fate and that everything happens for a reason. I always look ahead. I stopped very early with cycling but I knew that I could still give a lot in sports. For a door that closes, another opens.

Triathlete.com: How does the atmosphere in cycling compare with the atmosphere in triathlon? Which do you prefer?

Cigana: There are many aspects that I like much more in triathlon, like visiting many new places, meeting many people and making many new friends. In cycling it is much harder, especially because the contact with people is much less. They are two completely different sports and it is difficult to explain all the differences well. Certainly the atmosphere of triathlon is much more relaxed because it is an individual sport, whereas in cycling you’re under contract with a team. Often you cannot compete as you would like because there are roles to respect. There are things that I like in both, but I must say that I am more comfortable with the atmosphere of triathlon. It is much more fun.

Triathlete.com: Will you share one of your favorite run sessions?

Cigana: My favorite one is definitely when I go out to do an hour easy, especially off road in contact with nature, without the stress of the repeats but for the pure pleasure of the run.

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