FINALE LIGURE, Italy -- It's hard to make sweeping assessments about a person based on only a handful of encounters, but Marco Fontana seems pretty damn relaxed for an endurance athlete.
In a world where calories are counted with a banker's precision, workouts take precedence over friends and family, and winners and losers are often separated by who is willing to deny themselves more of life's carnal pleasures, Fontana exudes a free-spirited attitude that's more in line with the enduro riders that share storage space with him inside the Cannondale Factory Racing team truck.
During the team's two-day press launch in Finale Ligure at the end of February, the cross-country racer wore a perpetual grin despite a non-stop slate of interviews, photo shoots, meet-and-greets, and very little actual productive training time. But Fontana, also known as "Fonzie," never got bent, and instead took it all in stride.
"The guy is just so laid back and relaxed," said Murray Washburn, Cannondale's global director of product marketing. "Nothing gets him riled up. He really epitomizes the kind of rider that we look for. Sure, we're in a results-driven business, but we're also mountain bikers. You can't lose sight of that, and Marco gets that."
Make no mistake, though, come game time Fontana is a cold-blooded cross-country racing killer. In 2012, the 28-year-old Italian was fourth in the final World Cup standings, and he won a bronze medal at the London Olympics. You're likely familiar with the later feat, which saw Fontana dropped from the lead group on the race's final lap when his saddle snapped off. If things had gone differently, he's convinced he would have been in the mix for gold.
Fontana blames the incident on a domino effect of circumstances that started with a slipped pedal.
"After I come out of my pedal, we go down into a rock garden and instead of being smooth [and hovering over my saddle], I was sitting," Fontana explained. "Then I hit one rock very hard and I hear a loud noise. Some people will say I was being dropped then, but there was still time to get back on. I think it would have been three together for the sprint if the saddle does not break."
As it were, Jaroslav Kulhavy barely held off Nino Schurter for gold, with Fontana slotting third. One would expect the near-miss result to be tainted with heartbreak, but Fontana kept things in perspective.
"If you look through the whole season, I have been third a lot," he said. "The others were stronger during most of the season. Maybe I was stronger [at the Olympics] but I don't worry about that now; I look ahead."
This year marks Fontana's fifth with Cannondale, the only pro team he's ever known. He'll kick off the season in mid-March at the Cape Epic cross-country stage race in South Africa, pairing up with Cannondale Factory Racing teammate Manuel Fumic. The plan is to go hard in the prologue, then back off and use the rest of the race for training.
Then Fontana will dive headlong into the heart of the season with one simple goal. "There are seven big races this year, six World Cup and the world championships," said Fontana. "I must win at least one of those races."
Indeed, while Fontana has had plenty of success in a racing career that started 13 years ago in the junior ranks, the reigning three-time Italian national champion in cross-country and cyclocross has yet to break through on the international stage.
"I think I am just missing a little bit of power that Nino and Jaro have," said Fontana. "Sometimes when they are pushing the big gear, I must spin a little more. So then I have to take a few more chances, maybe brake a little later in a corner to stay on the wheel. That's when mistakes or problems happen."
Fontana is hoping that with another year of cross-country -- and 'cross -- under his belt, that little bit of extra power will turn up when he needs it. Last fall, he the took on an abbreviated cyclocross slate, scoring the first-ever World Cup podium placing on a disc brake-equipped bike (third in Rome). But his trip to the world championships in Louisville, Ky., didn't go quite as well. Early-race, weather-induced mechanical issues saw him slip to 26th at the finish.
"It was such a hard day with mud and ice at the same time," said Fontana. "After one lap the whole bike didn't work -- shifting, braking, nothing. I had to change bikes but already I'd lost a lot of time. It's too bad because I felt pretty good and I think I could have been there. But it's OK. You must look ahead, not worry about the past."
That final statement says a lot about Fontana. He knows he has the talent to be at the front, but he's also centered enough to keep it all in perspective.