The shape-shifting life and times of João warrant book-length treatment. For now, something more brief: 10 questions about his transformation from magazine ad salesman to World Tour pro, his creation of the luxury travel company inGamba, the relative merits of Portugal and Tuscany, and much more.
JoÃo, let’s start with some speed dating, shall we? Where are you from? Can you tell us about growing up? How did you fall in love with cycling and what did lead to?
I was born in Portugal, but grew up in New York from when I was 11. I actually started racing at the age of six, my dad just took me to a race one day and put me on the start line. I remember there were only two of us in the race and the other guy crashed. I don’t remember how exactly but I remember stopping and waiting for him, and my dad who was running alongside, shouting “go go go!” I think that was my first lesson in compassion.
When we moved to the US, I was fortunate to live in a small town called Sleepy Hollow where there was a really good club there called Sleepy Hollow Bicycle Club. and I continued to race for them through the Juniors and then went to back race in Europe.
The leap from Portugal to New York City – how did that happen?
My father had a few small businesses in Portugal, and one day he basically left. I remember one of my dad’s friends that night, telling me that he had gone to America and that we would be going soon as well. Six months later, I was running through JFK Airport with my mother and younger sister to meet my dad.
The funny thing is that back then, the US didn’t give whole families visas, so my dad had to come first and then my uncle impersonated my dad at the US embassy when we applied for a visa for my sister and my mom. Since the world championships were in Colorado Springs in 1986, I had a letter from the Portuguese Federation saying I was coming to watch them and that’s how we got our visas.
Looking back on it now, it almost feels like it was a well planned intelligence operation out of a Tom Clancy book. We were illegal until 1993, and then managed to get our Green Cards and later become US citizens. Funny thing is, sometimes I still feel like somebody is going to tell me I have to leave the US.
Once you graduated from college, you entered the publishing world. In the mid-2000s was it becoming evident to you that that entire industry was on the verge of collapse?
No, I remember having those conversations with you when you were at Competitive Cyclist and thinking: “man, you are a difficult cookie.” I loved the magazine world. I actually started in digital in 1999 and went over to the print side a few years later, after the first dot com bust. I don’t think I actually thought it was going to collapse until a few years ago, but I still hold out hope. I’m probably the exact opposite of an early adopter. More like a late lagger.
What magazines do you subscribe to now? Print or digital?
I ashamed to admit this but I only subscribe to Rouleur in print since they did a campaign asking cycling fans for help and I wanted to show support. At inGamba, we do our own yearly magazine that is only available to guests so in my own way I am keeping print alive.
I do read the Weekend Financial Times religiously, which includes a great magazine called How to Spend it and I’ll drive 20 miles to get it if I have to. When it's not available then I read it on my iPad but it took me a long time to adapt.
Digitally, I subscribe to the New York Times and the Financial Times. Print I subscribe to Rouleur and somehow get Peloton every month which is also a favorite of mine. But when I fly anywhere, I raid the newsstand for the flight and like to find interesting magazines around fashion, home design and travel. There are a lot of great publications out there and there is something about holding a magazine in your hand. And I can’t read a book on an iPad or Kindle. I have to have a physical book in my hands.
I remember being on a work trip to NYC in 2007 or 2008 and being out to lunch somewhere in midtown. And then you came stumbling in, clearly knackered from a long training ride in crap weather. I watched you treat yourself to... a small bowl of soup. To me it was the perfect illustration of the unbelievable quest you went on to become a pro bike racer. Can you share that story – where the idea came from to give it a go and what it took to get there?
This Q&A might become a novel if I start babbling about that, but when I went from Esquire to Bicycling Magazine, I hadn’t touched my bike in 10 years and weighed a little over 200 pounds. I was part of the restructuring team in the magazine and came in to run ad sales. Although non-bike advertising was the core of our strategy, we knew we needed to get the bike brands back in the book for credibility and I started going out on sales calls to the different manufacturers. There was always a lunch ride wherever you went, and as you can imagine being 5’8 and over 200lbs, I didn’t exactly look like a bike rider and coming from Bicycling Magazine, I got a lot of eye rolls. Inevitably, somebody would say hey, “for a guy as big as you, you are actually pretty good.”
One day I was in Italy calling on Pinarello, and Fausto asks me to join him in a Granfondo that weekend. I think it was 160km and I was there with Bill Strickland and was practically crapping in my pants with fear. I started the thing with Bill and Fausto and managed to hang on for 30 or 40K until the first climbs and then got dropped. Anyways, I kept going and eventually rode the whole thing with Steve Smith from Castelli and remember crossing the line and almost crying from happiness and a sense of achievement. Later that night, Fausto asked me if I ever raced and I said yes I did and had been a pro for a few years and he said he could tell by the way I pedaled. That was the first time somebody recognized me as a rider again and he also said you should come back. I don’t think he meant come back to racing but to some sort of shape that wasn’t pear shaped.
I think that was mid 2005, and I basically decided to start riding four times per week and if I could do that I would try racing locally again next year. I managed to do that all summer and then decided to race. But like always, if I am going to do something I need to do it all in so I called my old coach Max Testa and told him I wanted to train. I ended up building a Bicycling Magazine Team with a bunch of employees and some friends, and I called Pinarello for bikes, Giordana for clothing and basically we were probably the best outfitted team, amateur or professional, in the entire US. I raced in 2006 and won a few local events, my weight dropped to 150 or so and eventually the story started getting around the cycling industry and somehow I ended up riding for Bissel the following year, which was a US pro team. I was still working full time and on the weekends would go to races when I could often commuting to California on Friday to race the weekend crits and back to NYC on the Sunday red-eye.
One day I was talking to Gerard Vroomen, the co-founder of Cervelo, and he just put it out there that it would be really cool if I was to make a comeback. One thing led to another, I did some testing for them in Switzerland, and all of a sudden I was signing a contract to head back to racing in Europe.
What was harder – the training or the dieting?
The dieting was definitely harder for me. The training, although it was challenging, it was just a matter of doing it, letting your body adapt and doing it again. The dieting though, always trying to be lighter, was really tough because it's one of those things that you can never get 100% right and it’s a super unhealthy thing to focus on the way cyclists do. I mean I used to weight my food for crying out loud. That’s not a good thing.
Was there one day in particular racing for the Cervelo Test Team that stands out as your most memorable day as a pro?
Yes, in the Tour of Switzerland when I was riding with Thor Hushovd and we were going up the Simplonpass. It was a really long climb and towards the top, I was struggling and starting to go backwards. He looked at me and said, “If you loose my wheel, I will smash you.” I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or if I should cry. Later that day, when I was trying to come back into a small group about 10-15km before the finish there was an ambulance in the apex of a downhill turn, and I went straight into the back of it as they were pulling out the stretcher for Laurens ten Dam who had crashed. It was one of those really strange long days that you look at later and laugh about.
Somebody could write a book (maybe it’s already happened) about the total price paid by Cervelo (money and beyond) to create and manage the Cervelo Test Team. The brand was on top of the world at that point – winning every race on the calendar. To stay at the top of the sport, it was pretty clear that they needed to find a big money title sponsor – which, of course, never happened. What was your view of that sponsorship search process? In retrospect could’ve it gone differently, and perhaps had a different outcome?
There was a great book written by Phil White's wife, Anna Dopico, called “To Make Riders Faster” that talks a bit about that time and it’s a history of the brand. In my opinion, both those guys were visionaries. I mean not just in how they started the company and what they did to establish the aero frame on the road, but also with the team. So much of what you see today in teams, they were the first to do it.
One great example is the video series “Beyond the Peloton.” Its still probably the best team-driven content you can find out there on pro cycling and everything was like that. I was only there the second year but if you look at how the team was built in the first year, outside of Thor and Carlos who were the cornerstones, everybody else was kind of an unknown or underrated rider. It’s as if Billy Beane put together a cycling team of these odd pieces that as individuals were overlooked but on that team when racing as a unit they were so dominant.
Launching a team in a recession, and then trying to look for a sponsor in a recession, didn’t help and I’m sure that it's one of those things that if they had been successful in finding a sponsor, we’d be talking about how incredible that was for the brand.
Although I don’t think the team is what ultimately killed the brand and forced its sale, it sure was the last nail on the coffin since it bled cash and a company that size couldn’t support that kind of marketing expenditure on its own. To this day though, when I am at a race to handle our athletes, every time I see either a staff member or a rider that was on that team it’s a huge smile and hug. It was a different team and the culture that came out of it was pretty amazing.
You quit racing – then headed to Silicon Valley. What was it like working at LinkedIn? What did you do there?
LinkedIn was interesting. I was looking to work at Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn at that time and ended up getting my first offer from LinkedIn so I went from racing in Europe to the Bay Area. I really enjoyed my time there and was fortunate to experience a company pre-IPO and then through the IPO, so that was pretty interesting but ultimately it wasn’t a great fit for me. My background in advertising sales is very relationship driven and LinkedIn and all the tech companies are really engineering driven. The engineering mentality is the screen through which everything passes and that includes sales and marketing. It's all about measuring things and ultimately it wasn’t a great fit for me so after about 15 months I moved on.
Where did the idea of inGamba come from? Does the company nowadays resemble what you originally thought it would be?
The original idea came during a lunch Ted King and I were having in Lecchi in Chianti, where I was living while racing. He was there to visit and we were sitting at Paolo’s, a small local enoteca. and talking about how tired we were of the season and how we just wanted to go ride our bikes for fun without looking at a powermeter and be able to eat and drink what we wanted.
A few weeks later, I sketched out what I thought was the perfect week around there with my favorite rides and places to eat and then put it on my calendar for the end of the season as something I was going to do. I ended up sending out a tweet and seeing who would be interested in joining and four guys ended up making the trip. We had an amazing time that week and a few people on Twitter asked if I was ever going to do it again. I ended up doing a second trip in the spring of 2011 and Bicycling Magazine sent a reporter to cover it. This article called “Mangia Beve Bici” came out of it and it just blew up from there. I always said that it was an accidental business that started with a tweet and a magazine article and wanting to share Lecchi with people.
The core of what we do is exactly the same as back then. We give people the chance to experience what it's like to be treated on a pro team with the best equipment and soigneurs but without an emphasis on racing. So we ride, and at times we ride hard, but then we sit for lunch and dinner and have some great food and wine. Every trip has at least one mechanic, a soigneur and a guide, and with all the bikes and vehicles and the staff running around, it feels like you're on a pro team.
One of the things I love most about inGamba is how you’ve opened up American’s eyes to the incredible beauty of Portugal. What do you love showing off most about it?
It's interesting because Portugal now is very much in fashion so a lot more people are open to traveling there. The culture of the place is what I love to share most with people. Its an incredibly chilled out country, with amazing weather and a very hospitable culture. I always joke that if you ask somebody in Lisbon for directions they will start by telling you how to get there, eventually they give up and just take you there themselves. And when they leave you, there'll be an invitation for dinner at their house later on. There is some amazing design and architectural talent in the country and the hotels where we stay are really unique and it's just a great place to travel.
When potential customers get stuck on the fence between a trip to Portugal and one to Italy, do you give standard advice?
My favorite trip is Portugal but when somebody first comes and travels with us, I always tell them to start with Tuscany. That was the first trip and it allows people to really see why we do what we do, and once they have experienced that it really changes their perspective on travel and every other experience they have with us, regardless of country, is enhanced. When they come back the second time, they are part of the family and I think that is why we have so many customers who come back year after year and sometimes multiple times in the same year.
HOW DID YOU GET CONNECTED WITH EROS POLI? WHAT’S MORE SURPRISING – HOW MANY PEOPLE KNOW WHO HE IS, OR HOW MANY PEOPLE DON’T?
Eros was working for Pinarello when I met him and we hit it off right away. He’s this huge teddy bear of a man and outside of his athletic achievements is a great hang. Most people don’t really know who he is but they usually find out and at some point everybody is watching his Ventoux win on You Tube and its pretty special to see people discover him. The man has a heart of gold and is a wonderful person to spend a week riding and eating with.
In terms of inGamba, was there any silver lining whatsoever with COVID, or was it all just pain? How are you thinking about the business for next year?
I think there is always a silver lining and sometimes you have to wait a while to see what it is. For sure, being in travel and people not traveling has really affected us but we managed to keep all our staff in their jobs and Covid forced us to look at things differently and redefine what we think success is. Every business is looking to grow and be better at what they do and honestly, this year, I just wanted to keep my people employed and continue the conversation with our guests. Pretty early on we started doing Zwift rides with our guests and although its not the same thing it was an important way for the guides and our guests to stay connected. We are friends with so many of our guests that we just wanted to continue to spend time with them and had to do that over the virtual world.
We drew up a lot of plans on how to come back and ultimately had to abandon them but at the moment we are looking to next year as a way to just restart and continue to do what we love. Most of our clients are American and until they are allowed to travel to Europe, we can’t do anything in Europe. Since our staff is European and even in the US when we do trips we bring the staff over and right now they can’t get into the country so we are just holding. I tell the team to think about it like we are crossing a huge frozen lake, and all we need to do is get to the other side together. It doesn’t matter how fast but we have to get to the other side together and avoid the thinnest parts of the ice. It’s been a really good way for us to get closer to one another since we are all in it together.
Tell us about Corso Sports Management. And what does your crystal ball tell you about Tao Geoghegan Hart? What will his first BIG victory be, and what will he be doing at the peak of his career?
Corso is a business I set up with Ken Sommer, who I met at Cervelo. We represent 25 pro athletes on 11 pro tour teams. Tao was one of our early riders and somebody that I am very close to. He’s a very talented athlete but more important to me is that he is an incredible human being. He cares deeply about other people and I always joke with him when I’m sick and he calls to see how I am that I am the one supposed to take care of him and not the other way around. His talent is there and I have no doubt he’ll have a long and successful career but in an age when kids are coming out of the juniors, straight into the pros and winning right away, Tao is more of an old school rider that will just keep improving each year picking up his wins here and there and slowly making his way to the top. He’s about to start the Giro and I have high hopes for him at the race this year.