Dario Acquaroli lives in the small town of Curno, just outside Bergamo and only 1km from the Papa Giovanni XXIII Hospital, which, sadly, has become known because of its role in reacting to the COVID-19 coronavirus emergency in Italy. To help people who work hard every day to assist the infected, the former MTB U23 UCI World Champion has created a commendable fundraising initiative.
“Many people I know have died or are sick,” he told us. “The situation is worse than you can imagine reading the news. But here we don't cry too much, we roll up our sleeves and give our contribution." Just like Santini which is ready to convert to produce innovative face masks which are reusable up to ten times.
Born in 1975, Acquaroli wrote the history of Italian mountain biking, competing in 19 UCI World Championships with the Italian national team, winning two European Championships (1992, 1993), two UCI World Championships (Juniors in 1993, U23 in 1996) and five Italian Championships (1992, 1993, 1996, 2000, 2005) with Team Bianchi, Full-Dynamix and Sintesi Larm. He also received the Golden Collar for Sporting Merit from CONI (the Italian National Olympic Committee).
And in this time of great uncertainty and pain, Dario is not standing still: “I wanted to try to help the community… so I thought about the Bianchi on which I won the Under 23 World Championships in Cairns, because it is the most important thing that I own and that still binds me to my cycling past. It is a piece of my heart.”
Organising the fundraising lottery
The initial idea was an auction: “But I am not Valentino Rossi, I am known only in my sport, I could not hope to be able to raise a lot of funds. So we imagined a solution that could reach many more people, and be more democratic…. and we opted for Wishraiser."
This online platform is similar to a lottery; anyone making a minimum contribution of 10 euros can participate in the final draw, and the more you give, the greater chance you have of being drawn. Wishraiser has confirmed that it will not retain the normal small percentage for the service, and that 100% will be donated.
All the money will go to a local Bergamo association that manages mobile intensive care units. Dario explains: “I wanted to better monitor the final destination of the funds and I chose them because they are all voluntary rescuers on the mobile units; they are on the front line and they are also very often the first to be infected. I don't know how much we can collect because even if it has a historical and emotional value, it is still a 1996 bike. And I know that the association has no lack of medical material and equipment now. So my idea is that they can use money for various purposes as they prefer. It would also be nice if it became a reward for these volunteers, even just a dinner or a weekend."
Felice Gimondi, a second dad
The young Dario – from four to 15 years old – practiced alpine skiing, and trained on the bike. “I am originally from San Pellegrino Terme where Ivan Gotti, winner of two Giro d'Italia and my great friend, was born and lives,” he explains. “I was a 12-year-old boy and I followed his victories. Such famous people were seen as heroes to emulate by kids. I was involved in the Redondi Cycling Group in my town and unlike the skis, where I had always struggled to get results, with the bike I started pedaling very fast and winning soon.”
Thanks to excellent performances, within only four years Acquaroli signed his first contract, a turning point in a life and a career: “The telephone rang at home, my grandmother Vittoria answered and almost passed out: it was the president of Bianchi, Felice Gimondi. She was a big fan of his. 'What has Dario ever done to receive such a call?', she asked. A few days later Gimondi came to meet me and we sat around a table with my father Franco and the sports director, Isaia Spinelli.”
Unfortunately, on the eve of the first race in the Bianchi jersey, Dario's father died: “Felice became a father figure for me, very important in my life. He supported me from the age of 16 to 26, a critical period of personal and sports growth. It is thanks to him that I can be what I am. He taught me a lot.”
Gimondi decided to give to Dario that custom-built titanium MTB he used to win the Under 23 UCI World Championships: “It is the only bike I have, because usually the riders return them at the end of each year. But Felice decided not to put the bike in the company's museum and to give it to me to celebrate that magical day."
Indeed, the 17th September 1996 was an incredible day. Despite a positive season and an excellent condition, the start was not brilliant for Dario: “After the second and third laps I also thought about retiring. But I held on. The legs started spinning well and I started to catch rivals one by one until I reached third position.”
He could have been satisfied, but his character pushed him further: “I felt better and better so I noticed Cadel Evans – he was only 20 seconds away. I reached him, overtook and accelerated. I also managed to catch Miguel Martinez and I won with a two-minute lead. It was a bizarre day, a mix of pain and joy, a great satisfaction.”
Bergamo will not give up
All these emotions remained linked to the symbol of that triumph, the Bianchi bike, which has never been used since, and which remains in perfect condition. And just like Acquaroli in that race in 1996, today Bergamo and Italy hold on and refuse to give up.
Fundraising is expected to last a month, but it may be extended. Where would Dario like to imagine the bike going? “I would be happy if the winner is someone who appreciates the value of that object and who understood that I donated it with my heart and for the cause. I imagine the bike hanging on a wall in the house and guests who come for dinner and ask what it is, and they can discover the story behind it. It’s nice if the winner of the bike is a simple person, who just donated only 10 euros.”