"You know you are a pain in the ass, right?"
This is probably the sentence I heard more often, since I was a child. And now that I'm no longer little, my coach never fails to tell me, every once in a while.
I'm a curious mind.
I'm one of those people who need to stick their fingers and their nose in hidden corners of things, to understand how they work, how they've been built and what good can come out of them for me.
This means being precise and meticulous, demanding to know exactly what's in my bottle, what's in my supply, what plans the technicians have for my training, what is the latest frame model produced, how much it weights and how my posture changes in relation to it.
It may also mean bumping into the edges of stubbornness, especially when I was young, like when, at the hardware store with my dad, the theoretical description of a "mouse trap" wasn't enough, and I had to touch it good.
This empirical method made me end up like a rat.
Maybe, in hindsight, this is why the first image that comes to my mind is a fairly recent memory, from my wedding.
It was a new emotion, different from anything I'd ever experienced before, and that I had never crossed paths with in many years of school and sports.
Be it an exam, a surprise test or a long-awaited competition, I've always had the feeling of being in control, the illusion of being fully aware of what I was getting into and of the related consequences. But not on my wedding day, because it had much more nuanced yet absolute outlines.
Perfect or catastrophic, there was no in-between: I felt like I couldn't get anything wrong, even though I knew that, differently from a mountain bike race, there would be no winners or losers at the end of the day, just the two of us.
The only time in my life when I had no control over anything, and I felt just fine.
I say "the only time" because the pain-in-the-ass kid I was would never had been taken by surprise by anything or anyone, especially on the most important topics of all: sports.
In our home, cross-country skying was the absolute champion, with my dad that, between Sgambede, Marcelonghe and the likes, had took part in over one hundred races, all over the world, driven only by steel legs and a lot of passion. A passion that was passed down to my sister Marianna, who started going fast on her skies since she was very little, and finally got to the Olympics.
With this background, they were bound to try and pin a couple on me too, in the hope that, even if I wasn't as strong as my sister, I could get a little into shape, since it was easier to jump over me than to walk around me, at that time.
But nothing, it wasn't my thing.
I didn't feel stimulated, I didn't have fun doing it, and I still hadn't discovered the pleasure of fatigue.
I'd rather play soccer, or snowboard, so I started the long secular pilgrimage among the many sports that Livigno offers to children, waiting for the right spark. As chance would have it, it reached me while I was in an actual pilgrimage. An actual one, not at all secular.
2000, year of the dreaded millennium bug and - above all - of the Jubilee.
To celebrate the Holy Year, my father planned a long trip, with a group of friends: from our home to Rome in bicycle, reaching the doors of the Eternal City just in time for the celebrations.
I was just a kid then, and I joined the pilgrims only on the last three stops.
And they were enough to make me fall desperately in love with two wheels.
There was something poetic in being "one" among so many with the same idea.
Someone just wanted to get there, exhausted after hundreds of kilometres on the saddle. Someone else took the chance to see Italy with tourist eyes. Someone else still made the threads of their own interior path run parallel with those of the road under their feet, highlighting the spiritual dimension of the journey.
One, no one and one hundred thousand: everyone with their own sacred and inviolable space, in the midst of a collective experience, where nature was the common thread.
A feeling I've never stopped chasing.
Not a son, not a father.
Not a husband, not a friend: what I like about mountain bike is being alone. Fully myself, while not having to be anyone in particular.
Me, my bike, dirt roads and fatigue, hand in hand in a picture-worthy nature, completely indifferent to our times and our passage.
Sometimes I set off before dawn and ride for hours, stopping the sound of my breath only so as not to scare the wild animals I sneaked up on in a hidden corner of the forest.
Moments that are not even worth capturing, since they would be ruined.
Even now that I've lost weight and that sport has become my job, the simplest equation of all is perfect to describe the passion I fell.
Races, trips, bib numbers and training: nothing can ever equate what I feel when I reach the top of Passo Cassana, to admire Livigno's lake from above and stare at the Bernina and Cevedale in the eyes.
The last two and a half kilometres before the peak are not for everyone, at least not without an e-bike. Seven hundred meters of elevation gain: a short stretch on the map, which the harshness of the mountain makes almost inaccessible, just as an eagle's nest.
I always say, jokingly, that when I die they can cremate me and leave my ashes up there. I'll be fine.
Seeing my corners of Paradise become everyone's heritage is something that fills my heart with joy. Marianna often tells me that she would have loved to be active now, because, with all the cross-country ski champions that come to Livigno, she could have surely reached even higher levels and learn so many things.
What for her is just a dream of the past, almost a tiny regret, to me is the most unexpected fortune I could hope for, and I have to thank the project Livigno undertook in the last years for it.
Riding on our roads, when I meet the big names of cycling - from Pogacar to Van Der Poel - who come here to train, I tag along, to observe them better and steal a few secrets of this trade, and even if it's a different sport, I feel like I've gone back to a time when I was a curious child, so many years ago.
And it's our own pride, one we've deserved, and that it is being fulfilled also all over the world, when my opponents point their finger at my helmet, at the word 'Livigno', and smile happy, telling me about "that time when"...
And it's a conquest for everyone, because, by following the example of those who are close and personal with sports, anyone can discover something new, and enjoy an effort that cleanses your soul from day-to-day struggles, and which can help us become better persons.
Maybe by renting a bike and experiencing what Passo Cassana is like, or perhaps by joining the pilgrimage of a group of friends.
Calendar in hand, the next Jubilee is right around the corner.