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Friday September 30th, 2022 9:54AM

Vatican cyclist spreading the pope's message at worlds

By The Associated Press
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VATICAN CITY (AP) — A plain white helmet like the pope’s skullcap.

The Holy See’s crossed keys seal stamped on his white and yellow jersey over his heart.

Dutch-born cyclist Rien Schuurhuis will carry an enormous sense of duty when he races for the Vatican in Sunday’s road race at the cycling world championships in Wollongong, Australia — marking a first in the city-state’s increasing use of sports 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 still yet to come when I’m standing there at the start line.

“This is a great first step in the direction of what the pope believes in achieving through sports (with) inclusiveness and fraternity,” Schuurhuis added. “Everyone on the sports field — or on the roads in this case — is equal, no matter their backgrounds, religion or age.”

Vatican athletes have recently participated as non-scoring competitors in the Games of the Small States of Europe — open to nations with fewer than 1 million people — and the Mediterranean Games.

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

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

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

He holds Dutch and Australian passports but athletically now represents the Vatican.

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

Schuurhuis previously raced on the UCI's Continental Circuit, one level below the elite World Tour.

“He’s a good cyclist. That’s a high level,” said Valerio Agnoli, Schuurhuis’ volunteer coach and a former teammate of Grand Tour winners Ivan Basso and Vincenzo Nibali.

Schuurhuis, whose day job is now running a company that supplies materials for 3D printers, trains on Rome’s traffic-clogged roads. He sometimes heads out to the Alban Hills, where the pope’s traditional summer residence is at Castel Gandolfo.

Besides a recent photo opp, Schuurhuis doesn’t really ride 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 told off by the police.”

Schuurhuis doesn’t expect to come close to winning. His main goal is to spread the pope’s message.

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

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

Agnoli noted how cycling takes place on open roads, passes by people’s homes and isn’t restricted to paying ticketholders inside a stadium or arena.

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

In another example of the values held within cycling, Mattei pointed to how Gino Bartali, the 1938 Tour de France winner who smuggled forged documents inside his bicycle frame to help rescue Jews during Germany’s occupation of Italy in World War II, is currently being considered for beatification by the Vatican, the first step to possible sainthood.

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

“To go to the Olympics would require creating an Olympic committee and being recognized by the International Olympic Committee,” Mattei said. “That takes time.”

Competing in a world championships, however, is a big step toward Olympic participation.

So will the pope be watching Schuurhuis on TV?

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

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More AP sports: https://apnews.com/hub/sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Andrew Dampf is at https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf

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