Rinaldo Nocentini has had a curious cycling career. He rode the Giro d’Italia in both 2015 and the year 2000; that means he’s finished the race alongside Marco Pantani and later Fabio Aru.
Nocentini doesn’t own the longest streak on show by a current Italian pro; that particular accolade belongs to Mr.Davide Rebellin. The 46 year-old has had a staggering career which stretches from taking fifth in the 1996 Amstel Gold Race to finishing the same event a whopping twenty years later. He won a stage of the Tour of Iran recently; closer to his sixtieth birthday than his thirtieth.
But enough about Rebellin. Whilst the former Ardennes superstar gets plenty of acknowledgements, Nocentini continues to race in the shadows. He’s raced almost entirely in Portugal for the last two years representing Sporting Clube de Portugal and tussling for victories against the mighty W52-FC Porto. Prior to that he had nine steady years at AG2R showing up across the calendar with comforting regularity; “Ah, look who’s in seventh – that rider who wore the yellow jersey at the Tour that one time”.
You were unlikely to come across a Nocentini fan club, but for years he stuck to his task and competed at a high level. Seeing Nocentini in race results was like waving to the local rider you’ve been looping round the countryside with for the last six years without ever speaking to.
As much as I’d like to talk about Nocentini’s collection of impressive one-day results, I’d have almost certainly not followed his career had it not been for his fifteen minutes of fame – which actually lasted seven days and stretched across the Pyrenees, Limoges and North central France – wearing the yellow jersey at the 2009 Tour de France.
In a race remembered for Lance Armstrong’s doomed comeback, Alberto Contador’s dominance and Mark Cavendish’s brilliance, Nocentini took the race lead by six seconds after an escape to Andorra on Stage 7. He held this slender advantage over Astana’s power couple for seven stages before relinquishing it to a rampant Contador in the Alps. He went on to finish a valiant 14th in Paris. There was nothing particularly peculiar about his stint – nor spectacular – but for fans of AG2R La Mondiale or Italian cycling it was a timely arrival in the headlines.
Nocentini – who could identify as a climber, puncheur or awkward occasional sprinter – had shown some solid form in the first part of 2009. Nevertheless, when faced with the Col de Tourmalet on Stage 7 he found he was unable to compete with stage winner Brice Feillu. He would eventually switch his target to seizing the yellow jersey and was encouraged by AG2R’s manager Vincent Lavenu to ride hard to the finish. He grinded away at the giant obstacle – a beast so often included in the Tour de France roadbook – and was successful in snatching the biggest moment of his career.
In 2009 AG2R were not packed full of exciting prospects and primed to muscle the likes of Team Sky from the head of the peloton; these were the days when they barely troubled the cameras.
Despite spending most of his career away from the spotlight, Nocentini looked cool on the Tour de France podium. He wasn’t quite in the Cipollini category but a big smile, gold earring and curtained fringe gave him a certain panache that was almost completely hidden by his team helmet and grimacing climbing style.
A month later Nocentini’s efforts were almost forgotten and at the start of the following season he fractured his leg at the GP dell’Insubria. Thankfully, the quiet Italian got better with age. I followed Nocentini in the latter part of his career and was pleased to see him collect good results in the Ardennes races and at the Vuelta a Espana.
One of his last big results for AG2R came at the 2014 edition of Milano-Torino when he took a close second behind Giampaolo Caruso just days after his 37th birthday. He worked with his compatriot to hold off the fancied duo of Aru and Contador, before cracking in the uphill sprint on the final corner.
He made the transition to the Portuguese racing calendar in 2016 and has remained competitive at this reduced level. Not many ex-World Tour riders head to Portugal but I can think of worse places to end a career.