Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by SWpix.com
Among the most talented climbers in the sport, the Swiss was also a very bright and extremely engaging personality whose advocacy for environmental causes made him very much a role model
Hearing the news of Gino Mäder’s death, familiar thoughts filled my head, memories of past riders who have suffered the same awful fate and, as always, of a close family member who died in similar circumstances. There’s almost nothing that can be said that will offer consolation to his family, friends and the members of his Bahrain Victorious team. At the same time, though, it feels vital to express how he touched my life in a small but significant way, just as many bike racers do, finding a way into my personal peloton of favourites.
Standing at the top of the Mur de Péguère, the final climb on the final stage of the 2018 Ronde de l’Isard, I was on tenterhooks, hoping to see race leader Stevie Williams hold on to the yellow jersey in the prestigious under-23 race held in the Pyrenées Ariégeoises. Yet, as the Welshman and his GC rivals battled further down the narrow and ferociously steep ascent, Mäder was the first to emerge from the woodland below, the brilliant white on his IAM jersey standing out.
The Swiss rider, then 21, was the best part of four minutes ahead of the yellow jersey group and cruised to victory in Saint-Girons. “It was the best one of my career,” he said at the finish. “I don’t win often because I don’t sprint very well. To win, I have to finish alone, but it’s not every day that that can happen.”
His main objective that year was the Tour de l’Avenir, which was won in dominating fashion by Tadej Pogačar. Mäder was third, a place behind Thymen Arensman, his podium finish built around two victories in the Alps in the final three days, the first a solo success at Crest-Volland, where Georg Zimmermann was a stage winner in the Critérium du Dauphiné a week ago today, and the second at Saint-Colomban-des-Villards, where he did actually win a small group sprint, leading in Eddie Dunbar, Clément Champoussin, Aleksandr Vlasov, Iván Sosa and Pogačar, with João Alemeida and Arensman tailed off towards the finish.
Like all seven of those riders, Mäder not only stepped up into the professional peloton but quickly made an impact within it. Having signed with Dimension Data in 2019, he made his Grand Tour debut after that team had morphed into NTT Pro Cycling at the Covid-delayed 2020 Vuelta a España. He finished 20th on GC, his best performance second place behind David Gaudu on the penultimate stage to the La Covatilla ski station.
He joined Bahrain Victorious in 2021, when his renown grew with another second place. On that memorable occasion at Paris-Nice, he was denied victory at the La Colmiane summit finish by Primož Roglič’s last-kilometre surge of speed that swept him past the Swiss just 25 metres short of the line. We all felt for Gino Mäder that day, even Primož, but an elusive first pro win did soon arrive at the Giro d’Italia, the Swiss the sole survivor of an almost stage-long break to Ascoli Piceno (pictured above).
Mäder returned to the Vuelta that September, finishing fifth on GC and playing a key role in helping teammate Jack Haig take third place overall. While that performance underlined his racing ability, particularly his talent on the climbs, that race also highlighted his personal qualities. Born in mountain country and well aware of the changes being wrought in that terrain by global warming, he started the Vuelta making this promise on Twitter: “Each rider I beat on every stage equals 1 euro that I‘ll spend to an environmental organisation. To decide where the money should go, write in the comments where it‘s best invested! The comment with the most likes at the end of the three weeks get‘s chosen.”
He kept a running total, lamenting when riders dropped out and, as a consequence, reduced the amount he could donate. He found ways to make up for this, however… “Stage 17: 150 riders beaten. Also on a negative side, I got fined for a sticky bottle, rightfully so. It was unnecessary and stupid. The fine is 200 CHF and as it is really deserved, I‘ll add this to my total as well. Sorry New total: 2651”
At the finish in Santiago de Compostela, he gave the final total: “Stage 21: 111 riders beaten. Vuelta done. It was hard. New total: 3159 Twitter, 10 for everyone in GC?” His grand total was €4,529.
There’s much said about athletes being role models, a lot of it baloney. But Gino Mäder’s Vuelta initiative marked him out as the kind of role model we need. Tackling climate change is the most important issue facing humankind and he used his position as a highly successful elite-level racer to highlight this, and in engaging way that I’m sure attracted new interest in and advocates to that cause. His was one of many young voices that give me belief that change will come in the future, change that my kids will hopefully benefit from.
The Swiss repeated his fundraising effort during the 2022 season, extending it to every race he started. Tweeting prior to the start of the Vuelta last August he said: “Being a kid I had the chance, the luck to see glaciers. ‘The face of the alps’ ‘Eternal ice’ Nothing eternal about them as the glaciers of the world lose around 300 Billion tons of ice every year. I hope future generations can experience glaciers too.” His hashtag was #raceforacause
His Twitter followers ultimately opted for justdiggit.org as Gino Mäder’s cause. It’s a non-profit NGO that’s focused on regreening Africa in order to cool down the planet. While it’s awful to be think that this intelligent, easygoing, engaging and talented athlete won’t be lighting up our sport again, supporting this cause is perhaps one way that bike fans can pay tribute to Gino Mäder and gain a degree of solace from his untimely death.