Martino, that’s how he’s known by everyone in the world of international cycling: legally he’s called Giuseppe Martinelli, the man who spent the last thirty years of his life running some of most prestigious professional cycling teams.
Leading a team, managing big champions, bringing talents to the fore: his results speak for themselves – 6 Giro d’Italia, 3 Tour de France, 1 Vuelta a España, 1 World Championship, a significant number of Italian Championships …
Marco Pantani, Vincenzo Nibali, Alberto Contador, Fabio Aru, Alexander Vinokourov, are just some of the great champions who have collected victories thanks to the advice, strategies and tactics of the Italian technician.
Martino, is managing a team similar to managing a company?
The elements and tools that a sports director uses are very similar to the ones we use for any other type of business management.
Budget and expenditure forecasts, objectives to work towards, stakeholders to involve in the process, human resources who have to be motivated, trained and guided towards the objectives, skills that need to be evaluated, roles that have to be assigned and, at the end of each season, investors who need to see a budget to be convinced to support the team.
It sounds like a very complex context – is it necessary for leadership to be well-structured and widely recognized?
For your leadership to be effective, it needs to be recognized by all team members. Each one is a special part of a process that’s entirely devoted to the victory of a single athlete, a result that is only realized through skilful teamwork and under the inflexible guidance of a leader who’s not necessarily elected by the people, but who is certainly appreciated for his skills, experience and ability to listen.
I built my leadership one step at a time, letting my results speak for me. I remember that I used to work for the Carrera Jeans team, led by Davide Boifava: everyone knew they could count on me, from the athletes to the technical staff, from the masseurs to the sponsors.
I listened and gave the answers that everyone expected, so I became a reference point for everyone.
In my experience, that’s what a boss should do: be there and never be afraid to take responsibility for his words and actions.
Are factors such as roles, functions and tasks also important in a sports team?
They are extremely important. Strategy is always planned in advance: before each race, we analyse each variable and communicate the chosen tactics to the team staff who, in a conscientious and responsible manner, puts them into practice.
It is a strategy that requires know-how, an in-depth knowledge of the objectives and of the tools required to achieve them, and mediation skills. I often feel like a peacemaker!
How much is meritocracy worth in this kind of sector?
When you work with a team of professionals, meritocracy is very important.
In the sports sector, it is not necessarily easy to find professional teams where skills are evaluated on a real, equal and practical basis, and where, therefore, the definition of merit is “true”.
When a team has values like trust and respect, we should not be afraid of confrontation or evaluation, and most of all we should never be afraid of the success of others.
Is it important to be able to respect others’ roles?
It’s fundamental: in a team, you have to be aware of your actions, of how your skills are assessed and of how you can take action in practice – that’s often what gives you an edge. Moreover, experience can often allow us to foresee the future, not through a magical or divinatory act, but thanks to a careful observation of what happened combined with an analysis that allows us to plan better strategies and reduce the risk of failure.
How important is winning?
Immensely. In my line of work, winning means putting in place a very specific series of behaviours so that the team is able to support a champion and allow him to cross the finish line first.
Champions, talents, stars. Can you help us understand the meaning of these words?
You are born a champion. It’s something that comes before everything else.
A champion can do whatever he wants, he’s never worried, he always thinks others have problems.
A champion lives outside of any normal parameter, and believes that the people around him are always able to accommodate his needs.
When you talk to a champion, you have to believe that you are at his level, you have to be able to catch his attention in the few minutes he can give you before he returns to his own thoughts. A champion is a prisoner of his own talent.
Throughout my career, I have met extraordinary champions, who came to me in their maturity, like Vincenzo Nibali or Alberto Contador.
To be able to lead them to success it was necessary for me to become their accomplice, in order to help them complete their masterpiece.
The word talent, instead, is kind of a “child” of the word champion: talent is what the champion decides to do, the road he takes, but talent alone does not go anywhere; It needs support to be able to express itself, it needs guidance to find its way.
In my life, I have met many talented athletes that I have guided and with whom I have achieved important results.
Then there is the star, the champion among champions, someone who has found a group of people, tools, and supports that have made him even greater.
I think of somebody like Ronaldo, who has left his team to play with great champions who make his presence extraordinary, turning him into a star.
I think of Eddy Merckx, a great champion who became a star thanks to the support of his team. In cases like these, the strength and skills of the team are essential in order to win.
Martino, you led a great champion like Marco Pantani: how did you work with him to win the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France?
When I built the Mercatone Uno team, my goals were very clear.
Marco Pantani had the potential to win both of these competitions, some of the most important and difficult ones of the season.
I had carefully studied Marco’s characteristics for 4 years – he was ready, almost invincible uphill. There was no doubt about this “competence“.
Marco was strongest when he could tackle the main climbs calmly, and big races like these are won when the road climbs.
To guarantee that, I chose athletes with complementary and supportive skills, people who could work on the flat stretches of road so that Pantani remained focused on its strengths.
I built the team to achieve this goal: win the Giro and the Tour, which was made possible by verticalizing skills and bring out the strengths in each.
Can you give us another example of champion and talent?
Let me give you an example from the automotive world: a champion is the engine and talent is the body. It’s like a Ferrari, a powerful and high-performing engine paired with a dreamy livery that, together, create a perfect object.
Which was the most important meeting of your career?
I was 29 years old; it was my first year as a sports director.
I met Alfredo Martini, the technical director of the Italian national team, the only true leader I have ever met. I listened to him for a while, and at the end, he asked me, “Why do you speak so little?” I replied, “I cannot speak when I listen to you, because I’m too busy thinking about what you just told me.”
How do you even talk after someone who speaks so well?
It was a great opportunity for me to have him as a role model for so many years.
Martino, how is your relationship with the media?
One last thing you want to tell us?
With a champion, if you do not win, you lose.
You lose because you should win, and if you do not win, it means that you have done something wrong.
A leader is responsible for his team’s results; he has a duty to study the competitors, to motivate the team and to develop the ability to speak to each team member in a language they can understand.