A Vatican rider will make history at the world road cycling championships

VATICAN CITY – A plain white helmet like the pope’s skullcap.

The seal of the crossed keys of the Holy See stamped on his white jersey and yellow on his heart.

Dutch cyclist Nothing Schuurhuis will carry a huge sense of duty as he races for the Vatican in Sunday’s road race at the world cycling championships in Wollongong, Australia – marking a first in the city-state’s growing use of sport as an instrument of dialogue, peace and solidarity.

“It’s an incredible honor,” Schuurhuis told The Associated Press in a phone interview from Australia on Friday. “I think the real emotion is yet to come when I’m standing there on the starting line.

“It’s a great first step in the direction of what the pope believes in being achieved through sport (with) inclusivity and brotherhood,” Schuurhuis added. “Everyone on the sports field – or on the roads in this case – is equal, regardless of background, religion or age.”

Vatican athletes recently participated as aimless competitors in the Games of the Small States of Europe – open to nations with populations under one million – and the Mediterranean Games.

The cycling worlds mark the first time a Vatican athlete will compete as a regular competitor, after the International Cycling Union recognized the Holy See as its 200th member last year.

“As Pope Francis said when he met a group of riders in 2019, the beautiful thing about cycling is that when you fall behind because you fell or because you had a flat tire, your teammates slow down and help you catch up with the main peloton,” said the president of Athletica Vaticana Giampaolo Mattei, who oversees the team. “It’s something that should carry over to life in general.”

Schuurhuis, 40, qualified for the team because he is married to Australia’s ambassador to the Vatican, Chiara Porro.

He holds Dutch and Australian passports, but now represents the Vatican in sport.

“I was able to ride a bike before I could walk,” Schuurhuis said of growing up in the cycling-mad Netherlands.

Schuurhuis has previously raced on the UCI continental circuit, one level below the elite World Tour.

“He’s a good cyclist. It’s a high standard,” said Valerio Agnolivolunteer coach of Schuurhuis and former teammate of Grand Tour winners Ivan Basso and Vincenzo Nibali.

Schuurhuis, whose daily job now runs a company that supplies materials for 3D printers, trains on the congested roads of Rome. It sometimes heads for the Alban hills, where the pope’s traditional summer residence at Castel Gandolfo is located.

Other than a recent photo shoot, Schuurhuis doesn’t really roll inside the Vatican.

“I think I did it once with my son,” he said. “But it’s not really allowed to go through St. Peter’s Square. So I think we were reprimanded by the police.

Schuurhuis does not expect to be close to victory. Its main purpose is to spread the pope’s message.

Like when he took part in a religious event with Indigenous Australians on Friday, or when Belgian Wout van Aert sought him out during training a day earlier.

“When people see this very special white and yellow jersey, it makes them curious,” Agnoli said.

Agnoli noted how the cycling takes place on open roads, passes people’s homes and is not limited to paying ticket holders inside a stadium or arena.

“That’s what’s great about cycling,” Agnoli said. “I was chosen by the Vatican for this job because my role as a cyclist was that of a team leader. I helped my teammates win the Giro d’Italia and the Spanish Vuelta.

In another example of the values ​​of cycling, Mattei underlined how Gino Bartalithe 1938 Tour de France winner who smuggled fake documents inside his bike frame to help rescue Jews during the German occupation of Italy in World War II, is currently being considered for a beatification by the Vatican, the first step towards eventual sainthood.

Vatican officials would like to field a team in the Olympics one day.

“To go to the Olympics, you would have to create an Olympic committee and be recognized by the International Olympic Committee,” Mattei said. “That takes time.”

However, participating in world championships is a big step towards Olympic participation.

So, will the pope watch Schuurhuis on TV?

“The jet lag is a problem,” Mattei said, noting that the race in Australia starts at 2:15 a.m. Vatican time, and that Pope Francis will travel to the southern Italian town of Matera on Sunday. “But maybe he’ll watch a replay.”

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Earnest L. Veasey