VATICAN CITY – A plain white helmet like the Pope’s skullcap.
The Seal of the Crossed Keys of the Holy See is embossed on his white and yellow jersey above his heart.
Cyclists of Dutch origin Rien Schuurhuis will carry a tremendous sense of duty as he competes for the Vatican in Sunday’s World Cycling Championships road race in Wollongong, Australia – a first in the city-state’s increasing use of sport as a vehicle for 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 will come when I’m there on the starting line.
“This is a great first step in the direction of what the Pope believes sport can achieve (with) inclusivity and fraternity,” added Schuurhuis. “Everyone on the sports field – or in this case on the street – is equal, regardless of their origin, religion or age.”
Athletes from the Vatican have recently competed as non-competitors in the Small States of Europe Games – open to nations with populations under 1 million – and the Mediterranean Games.
Cycling Worlds marks the first time a Vatican athlete has competed as a regular competitor after the International Cycling Federation recognized the Holy See as its 200th member last year.
“As Pope Francis Meeting with a group of riders in 2019, he said the beauty of cycling is that if you fall behind because of a crash or a flat tire, your teammates will slow down and help you catch up with the peloton,” said the President by Athletica Vaticana Giampaolo Mattei, who oversees the team. “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 has Dutch and Australian passports, but now represents the Vatican in sport.
“I could ride a bike before I could walk,” said Schuurhuis of growing up in the bike-crazy Netherlands.
Schuurhuis has previously ridden the UCI’s Continental Circuit, a tier below the Elite World Tour.
“He’s a good cyclist. That’s a high level,” he said Valerio Agnolivolunteer coach of Schuurhuis and former teammate of Grand Tour winners Ivan Basso and Vincenzo Nibali.
Schuurhuis, who now runs a full-time business that supplies materials for 3D printers, trains on Rome’s busy streets. Sometimes he drives out into the Alban Hills to see the Pope’s traditional summer residence at Castel Gandolfo.
Aside from a recent photo op, Schuurhuis doesn’t actually drive in the Vatican.
“I think I did it once with my son,” he said. “But you’re not actually allowed to cross St. Peter’s Square. So I think we were turned away by the police.”
Schuurhuis doesn’t expect to even come close to winning. Its main objective is to spread the Pope’s message.
For example, when he attended a church event with Indigenous Australians on Friday, or when Belgian standout Wout van Aert visited him during training the day before.
“When people see this very special white and yellow jersey, it makes them curious,” said Agnoli.
Agnoli noted that cycling takes place on open roads, past people’s homes and is not limited to paying ticket holders at 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 facilitator. I helped teammates win the Giro d’Italia and the Spanish Vuelta.”
In another example of cycling values, Mattei pointed out how Gino Bartalithe 1938 Tour de France winner who smuggled fake documents into his bicycle frame to help rescue Jews during the German occupation of Italy in World War II is currently being considered for beatification by the Vatican, the first step towards one possible holiness.
Vatican officials would like to field a team at the Olympic Games one day.
“To go to the Olympics, you would have to set up an Olympic Committee and be recognized by the International Olympic Committee,” Mattei said. “This will need time.”
However, participating in a World Championship is a big step towards Olympic participation.
So will the Pope see Schuurhuis on TV?
“The time difference poses a problem,” Mattei said, noting that the race in Australia begins at 2:15 a.m. Vatican time and Pope Francis travels to the southern Italian city of Matera on Sunday. “But maybe he’s watching a rerun.”
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