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Manuel Quinziato and his journey to Buddhism

Laura Meseguer
6 Apr 2018

Newly retired Italian domestique Manuel Quinziato talks to Laura Meseguer about how a career in cycling led him to Buddhism

Mark Twain described the Indian city of Varanasi as being ‘older than history, older than tradition,  older even than legend and it looks twice as old as all of them put together.’ The city sits on the banks of the Ganges river, and all manner of Indian sacred ceremonies across numerous religions travel there to bathe in the Ganges, lay flowers or cremate the dead. 

It’s also where retired Italian pro cyclist Manuel Quinziato found himself as his career drew to a close at the end of last year. But it wasn’t a Grand Depart – or indeed anything cycling-related – that drew him there. No, Quinziato marked the end of his professional cycling career with a very different kind of Tour – accompanying a group of Buddhists on a three week pilgrimage between Nepal and India.

While there, he formally converted to Buddhism.

It was the final step in a long journey for the cyclist, one in which the anxieties and pressures of professional sport served as a springboard to spiritual enlightenment.

The Pilgrimage

To fully understand Quinziato’s story, we must go back to the season of 2012. 

A pro since 2002, with spells at Lampre-Daikin, Saunier Duval-Prodir, Liquigas and BMC, Quinziato was recognised as one of the best domestiques in the peloton, and a strong time-trialist.

However, as that 2012 season got underway Quinziato found himself overcome by stress. Sleepless nights were accompanied by constant nerves. He was often sick and suffered regular panic attacks. It all came to a head when his father, suffering from epilepsy, had to undergo heart surgery. 

‘I realised that I couldn’t live like that. And I was at that point because of riding my bike... It's crazy.’ Always curious and an eager reader, he started looking into the reasons behind his anxiety, and he realised that the root of the problem was him.

‘It was my mind. It was my fault I was in that situation and it was hard to find a solution.’ His conversion to a more positive way thinking began through reading the book The Secret from Rhonda Byrne.

Though it’s a book that has been met by many with cynicism, the use of positive thinking promoted in the book convinced Quinziato to stop worrying about the specifics of his career and his season. 

For instance he was worried about being part of the BMC’s long list of 15 riders for that Tour de France and possibly not making the race. He decided that instead of worrying, he should simply see himself inside the nine that would fight to defend Cadel Evans title. 

‘The fear disappeared and my confidence grew,’ Quinziato says. ‘I started to sleep better, to train better, and I convinced myself that I would ride that Tour de France. And that's exactly what happened.’

Byrne's book and positive thinking had helped turn things around for Quinziato, but longer term a broader philosophy of thinking would prove to be more effective.

Spiritual Awakening

Buddhism, Quinziato believes, has turned him into a better human being and by consequence a better cyclist. He argues that it’s no coincidence that his last four years of his sporting career were his best.

As much as Buddhism is a religion, it is also a philosophy. For those that practise it, the aim is to overcome fears and learn to focus energy. From Quinziato’s perspective, this was to be of considerable value to his cycling form. 


It helped that his physiotherapist in Madrid, where he lives with his wife and son, happened to also be the Director of the Buddhist Centre in the city. 

Quinziato visited the Centre for the first time in April 2015, having heard about a visit from the renowned Buddhist thinker from Australia – the Venerable Robina Courtin. And he credits her for changing his life and truly introducing him to what Buddhism is all about. 

It was also thanks to Courtin, Quinziato says, that BMC won the Team Time Trial at the World Championships in Richmond, USA, that year. 

On the Thursday, a few days before the time-trial, the team was out doing a few recces on the route. During the second one, after six minutes at race pace Quinziato found that he had to stop. ‘I thought: Well, this is it. I’m going to lose this title for the team.’

But then one of Courtin’s videos helped him turn things around. ‘She was describing how someone can build his own hell,’ says Quinziato, and realised the notion related closely to the nerves and self-doubt that can torment an athlete before a competition. ‘She had a simple mantra for that situation: ‘go forward with courage and a happy mind’.

‘I realised that I had this terrible fear inside for Sunday’s race, and that I just wasn’t enjoying the situation at all, or enjoying being in Richmond.

‘Training on the rollers I just repeated to myself “Courage and a happy mind” – though I modified the mantra slightly by adding “wisdom”. I realised that if I just had courage and a happy mind I would probably start way too strong and not finish. That’s why you need a little wisdom too,’ he says.

‘We did a perfect time-trial and won the title.’

The Pilgrim

The experience proved hugely affirming, and it was also during that event that Quinziato first started recognising himself as a Buddhist. It came from a curious query from teammate Vincenzo Nibali, who asked simply ‘Manuel, are you a Buddhist now?’

‘“Yes I am,” I remember answering.’ It wasn’t until two years later that Quinziato officially converted to Buddhism, though, when he reached his retirement at the end of 2017. That was when a unique pilgrimage presented itself as an opportunity. 

A few months before, the Venerable Robina Courtin had again visited Madrid and invited her students to join her on a three-week pilgrimage through Nepal and India at the end of October.

Quinziato was initially keen, but was also wary of committing to such a big undertaking at a time when he would be coming to terms with his 15-year pro career winding down. And anyway, he was still scheduled to race in a few end-of-season events.

Then in mid-2017 he found himself opening telling BMC sporting manager Allan Peiper about the trip and his misgivings while on the way to the airport after a race, and found a sympathetic ear.

Peiper himself had travelled to India many times – twice staying for longer than a month – and had himself used meditation as a daily tool for coping with stress for more than a decade, so could relate to where Quinziato was coming from.

Peiper was adamant: ‘You have to go,’ he told him, and within a few hours Quinziato received an email saying he had been taking off the team for October’s Japan Cup, and so his path was clear. ‘I no longer had an excuse,’ says Quinziato, smiling.  

The Tour

The trip would start in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital and a city Quinziato fell in love with at first sight. He was drawn to the people, the colours, the smells, the traffic – the very rhythm of the city.

Yet compared to the cities he had crossed in India, he came to consider Kathmandu a tranquil haven. As part of the trip, the group spent a four-day retreat at the Kopan Monastery, placed on a hill above the valley of Kathmandu. The monastery is home to 400 monks, who live according to a strict and rigid schedule of meditation and teaching – perhaps not too different from Quinziato’s regimented career as a domestique. They continued the pilgrimage following the footsteps of Buddha.

 


The roads in India make driving 150km a half-day trip. He spent 12 days and 900km following the footsteps of Buddha. Before arriving in India, they visited the holy city of Lumbini, where buddhist tradition says that prince Siddhartha Gautama was born and where he made the transition to become a Buddha, after discovering the Four Noble Truths. His teachings are considered the core of Buddhism. 

In India, they came to Sravasti, then Kushinagar, where Buddha died, and Rajgir, where Buddha offered many teachings. They travelled through Bodh Gaya, the site of Buddha’s enlightenment, and from there they flew to the holy city of Varanasi. There he saw Sarnath, where it is believed that Siddhartha Gautama taught the Dharma (teachings of Buddha) for the first time. 

In Varanasi, last stop of the trip, Manuel Quinziato officially ‘took refuge’, a process of formally becoming a Buddhist. 

In Buddhism the concept is called taking refuge ‘in the Triple gem’, where a convert must take the vows to live according to the Five Precepts of Buddhism – to avoid harming living things, taking what is not given, sexual misconduct, lying and taking intoxicating substances.

For someone involved in cycling, and planning a career in sports management, Quinziato was concerned that honesty might not be the easiest policy when negotiating a contract.

Asking Courtin whether he could suggest there were offers when there were not, the answer was clear. ‘No, you can't do that,’ she said. ‘You don't need to lie. You have to be responsible with every word that comes out of your mouth. If you have to lie, it is better to shut up and when you have something to say, tell the truth. People will believe you.’


It may prove a challenging policy, but Quinziato fully intends to honour it. ‘I realized that if I have faith in the vows, I will be a much better manager.’

Reflecting on his conversion to Buddhism, Quinziato now sees himself as a very happy, and more considerate, person. For him, it’s been the philosophy that accompanies Buddhism that has allowed him to see life, and pro cycling, in a very different way. 

‘Professional cycling gives you the opportunity to improve as an athlete and as a human being, and teaches you how to push your limits,’ he says. ‘But the difficult thing is that it’s your mind that decides how to live with that experience.’

So Quinziato is now embarking on life as a manager, and already has his first clients – Matteo Trentin, Moreno Moser, Carlos Verona, Fran Ventoso, Jacopo Guarnieri, Davide Cimolai and Dario Cataldo. 

Of course, he had to think of a name for his new agency. He mulled it over, and decided on something to reflect the principles of his journey. Dharma is the term given to the teaching of Buddha, and Quinziato’s agency is now called Dharma Sports Management. 

He won’t be making his new clients convert to Buddhism. The physical and spiritual journey he’s taken has given him a certain outlook, though. That will inform his approach, and the way that he hopes his athletes will view their sport, and their careers.

‘The truth is that we are truly privileged as cyclists,’ he muses. ‘We have been paid a lot of money to do what we like. If you are not happy with what you have, you never will be.’

 

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