Vittorio Brumotti Serves Vigilante Justice on a Bike
Coronavirus hasn't stopped Italian heartthrob and two-wheeled avenger Vittorio Brumotti from righting society's wrongs. The cyclist has delighted audiences with his TV news segment "100% Brumotti," shaming people for parking in handicapped spaces and taking on no less than the Mafia. We ride along with Italy's favorite bike hero.
It’s a Wednesday evening in March, and the coronavirus pandemic is ravaging Italy. The viewers of Striscia la Notizia, a popular satirical news program, are shown “100% Brumotti,” a segment in which Vittorio Brumotti, a noted trick cyclist, roams Italy on his bike combating various social ills.
Tonight’s segment is a little different. It opens with Brumotti, 40, in the attic bedroom of his parents’ home in the seaside region of Liguria, where most citizens, like the rest of the country, are under emergency lockdown. He greets viewers and introduces us to his girlfriend, Annachiara Zoppas, who lies on a couch reading Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl. He jumps on his bike, does a few stunts on the balcony, then rolls down the interior stairs. He navigates a narrow turn, descends more stairs, and emerges in the kitchen, where his mother, Elisabetta, is cooking. He bunny-hops onto the kitchen table, his mom smiling indulgently.
After mowing the lawn (still on the bike, now pushing a mower), he jumps (sans bike) into a hammock. Toward the end, he shows viewers that he actually crashed on his initial attempt at the table leap. “Friends, listen, don’t believe everything you see,” he says.
In a country where just about every aspect of life has changed, it was nonetheless surreal to see the high-flying Brumotti grounded at his parents’ house. Here was a man who has set numerous Guinness World Records, for feats like “highest jump into water on a bicycle” (17 meters, into the Tyrrhenian Sea) and riding up the stairs of the world’s tallest building (nearly 4,000 in all, in Dubai’s Burj Khalifa). Now here he was, relegated to clowning around at home.
But the situation was only temporary, and for Brumotti, some things hadn’t changed at all during the pandemic. Armed with his bike, four GoPros, and a face mask, he was still pushing ahead a bombozza—“full throttle,” a kind of personal motto—with his mission of being both an entertainer and a social avenger on two wheels.
Back in October of 2019, before Italy became an early locus of the global outbreak, before sequestered Italians began their nightly balcony serenades, I met up with Brumotti near Noli, on the Ligurian coast.
There, on a windy stretch of Italian Strada Statale 1 (State Highway One), he talked me up onto a ledge. On one side, a clamorous procession of buzzing Piaggios and Fiats. On the other, a sheer 85-foot drop to the azure sparkle of the Mediterranean. Brumotti scampered goatlike on the roadside railings as he waited for his father, Claudio, who’s a young-looking 62, to repair his bike.
As I reluctantly clambered up, Brumotti invited me to walk toward him. I took two steps before falling—luckily, to the soft gravel of the shoulder. “Don’t look down,” he said. “Listen.” I nodded, although I had no idea what that Yoda-like incantation meant.
Brumotti’s bike—a sleek black carbon-fiber and aluminum commuter emblazoned with his name and equipped with flat handlebars and platform pedals—was ready. He climbed on, did a little twirl in the road, and leaped up onto a stone ledge only slightly wider than the guardrail. He did a dramatic track stand, the wind pushing at his deep-dish aero wheels. He crossed a thin guardrail, thrusting one leg out for balance. Then he popped a wheelie—his tire accommodated by only a few inches of slick steel railing—pivoted smoothly toward the road, and hopped back down.
SS1 is the kind of winding, car-commercial road you drive as a tourist, struggling to keep your eyes in your head as you do. Dramatic cliffs rise on one side; the Med seductively glitters on the other. Now imagine that this postcard view also featured a well-built, handsome (Brumotti has been featured in Vogue Italia), heavily tattooed guy, with a goatee and handlebar-mustache combo, casually cycling on a piece of thin metal over a dangerous precipice as if he were on a Sunday ride in the park.
Passing drivers honked and stared, open-mouthed. There were shouts of “Ciao, Brumotti!” Several Lycra-clad men, ageless in that way Italian road cyclists always seem to be, stopped for selfies. “You have lots of fans,” I observed. “I need the people,” Brumotti said, “for my energy.”
Outside Italy, Brumotti might be called semi-famous. He’s a former champion in cycling’s trials discipline, that crazy subculture of two-wheeled tricks made famous by riders like Scottish mountain biker Danny MacAskill. You may have seen Brumotti’s popular YouTube videos: he pirouettes a bike on the edge of the Grand Canyon; he rides on his front wheel, backwards, down a steep hill in San Francisco; he plays golf on bikes with the famous pro cyclist Peter Sagan, taking shots with an expertly flicked rear wheel.
In Italy, however, Brumotti is a genuine star, his romantic exploits reported relentlessly by gossip magazines. (His girlfriend, Zoppas, is an heir to the San Benedetto mineral-water fortune and works in marketing at the company.) Later that morning, when we stopped by the small coastal village of Varigotti, he was constantly hailed on the street for photo requests, made by everyone from petite nonne to a group of construction workers from Calabria—his mother’s native land, the toe of the Italian boot—who excitedly goaded him into bunny-hopping onto their flatbed truck. He did them one better by shouldering his bike, climbing onto an adjacent roof, popping a wheelie, then dropping 12 feet into the bed of the parked truck. “Grazie, ragazzi!”—thanks, guys!—he shouted cheerily as he pedaled away.
As we ate lunch, on a terrace at the iconic Villa della Pergola, he was approached by an older couple who’d been casting glances our way the entire meal. “È un eroe italiano,” the man said emphatically. Then, to me, in case I hadn’t understood: “He’s an Italian hero!”
The man was not referring to Brumotti’s exploits in the stunt film Road Bike Freestyle 2, however impressive they may be. He was talking about another important part of Brumotti’s life and persona: his segment on Striscia la Notizia, one of Italy’s longest-running shows. Literally “strip the news,” it mocks government and media alike; it’s a bit like The Daily Show, but with a muppet-like mascot and dancing showgirls thrown in.
For more than a decade, Brumotti has been fighting various social problems the way he knows best—with a smile and his prowess on a bike. These appearances used to be fairly low-wattage affairs. He would highlight government inefficiency by riding around expensive, never-completed buildings, or he’d seek out drivers who’d parked illegally. In the latter spots, he’d approach scofflaws on a bike and, as politely as possible, point out their misdeed. He’d then affix a plastic coil of excrement to the roof of their car. Words and gestures tended to escalate. “I have a muscle,” he’d say, in a phrase that doesn’t quite translate but is almost the stronger for it, “to fight the shit person.”
In the past four years, though, this Batman on a bike has found a new, much more substantial and dangerous target: organized crime.
When the coronavirus hit Italy, Brumotti was in Dubai—he divides his time between there and Milan. He was performing tricks during the opening ceremonies of road cycling’s seven-stage UAE Tour. On February 27, the event’s final two stages were canceled when two Italian riders tested positive for the virus.
After testing negative, he headed to Liguria. Even before the virus he would go back to his childhood home to recharge, to dream up new stunts, to stay sane.
Last October, after our morning on the highway, Brumotti took me to his training facility, a former warehouse in the town of Borghetto Santo Spirito. One side of the space was dominated by several ramps and a foam pit. Shipping pallets were stacked in various configurations, like some kind of Jenga in progress. “I don’t like plastic,” he said. “Wood is romantic.”
The phrase a bombazza was spray-painted everywhere. There was a poster from Brumotti’s trials championship, and another showing routes up Mount Everest. “I wanted to climb Everest by bike,” he told me, describing an abortive 2012 effort. It wasn’t an entirely crackpot idea—he had already climbed more than a dozen of the tallest Italian Alps that way, hopping up summit ridges in deep snow. He trained for Everest for two years and spent upward of $100,000 mounting an expedition. He made it to Base Camp before the Nepalese government pulled his permit, having decided that maybe biking up Everest was too dangerous after all.
The warehouse is where all the dazzling moves in his videos take shape. What looks on film like reckless abandon is really the result of endless, meticulous practice. After Brumotti did a few backflips into the foam pit for the benefit of a photographer, I asked to see a front flip. “There’s not enough room,” he said. He pointed to the high ceiling, where I was startled to see a tire mark. “I hit my back tire trying a front flip.”
Brumotti has been at this since age 11, when he saw a live show put on by Italian trials riders and became deeply enchanted. His father, a former member of a special police squad that battled the Red Brigades, the notorious left-wing militant outfit that terrorized Italy in the 1970s, built him his first bike. This led to a career that was life changing for both him and his parents. “My father made me one bike,” Brumotti jokes, “and now he asks for a Lamborghini.”
He competed often and had his own trials show as a teenager, doing up to five exhibitions in a single weekend. When cycling didn’t pay the bills, he worked as a bricklayer. Everything changed in 2006, when, at 26, he won the world trials championship. A year later, he achieved his first Guinness record, jumping 20 track hurdles on a bike.
Sponsorships from two big pro teams, Tinkoff and Astana, soon followed. Brumotti trained with both but didn’t race; his place on the team was earned through the invaluable media exposure he got from doing tricks. His stunt-filled videos sometimes got more views than the official race films.
In 2008, he began appearing on Striscia. In addition to airing his Guinness attempts, the show featured Brumotti doing the segments that would become his métier: tackling social problems on a bike. He wanted to use the fame he’d built up, he says, to contribute something to Italian society.
In 2015, when he was out on a training ride with his father and some friends, he became embroiled in a vicious brawl with an Albanian family (Brumotti says he was attacked) who was angered by the slow pace of his group’s support car. After the lengthy, costly legal proceedings that followed, it emerged that one of the men involved had been arrested for dealing drugs. The episode triggered something in him, and a new crusade against injustice was born. His “mission of shit,” as he’d called his campaign against traffic scofflaws, would now focus on crime. “It’s not revenge,” he says. “I want to speak about big problems.”
Alongside the comic images of Brumotti dispensing his trophies of shit, there now appeared a new figure: Brumotti, off the bike, megaphone in hand, wading into twilight parks and shabby streets all over Italy, filming would-be drug buys and then denouncing—sometimes even chasing down—street dealers, later brandishing their photographs on television, launching police blitzes in his wake.
The dealers themselves were low-level functionaries for Italy’s modern-day mafia. That word may conjure sepia images of wide collars and Sicilian vendettas, but organized crime is alive and well all over Italy. From the early nineties on, the Cosa Nostra itself began to fade, following intensive judicial campaigns and major arrests, but other, lesser-known groups have grown in importance. The most notorious mafia outfit these days, the ’Ndrangheta, is a well-organized clan-based enterprise that originated in Calabria and, much like a virus, has spread, creating what Europol has called “perfect copies of its essential structures” in host countries all over the world. ’Ndrangheta (pronounced “n-drawn-geh-tuh,” derived from a Greek word for masculine virtue) is believed to dominate Europe’s cocaine trade. A 2014 report from Italian research institute Demoskopika estimated that the network had generated 53 billion euros, about $59 billion in today’s dollars, in 2013. “It’s like McDonald’s without taxes,” says Brumotti. “It’s incredible.”
Not surprisingly, Brumotti’s encounters with this shadowy force soon took a dark turn. In 2017, his car was shot at in Rome by a man wearing a balaclava. He started to receive death threats. A year later, in a bleak housing project near Palermo, he was spotted by local mafia sentinels, and his car was pelted with a terrifying hailstorm of rocks and debris pitched from a building rising above the street. (In the course of his reporting, four armored cars he paid for himself have been destroyed by gang members.)
Vincenzo Rubano, an Italian journalist working with Brumotti who previously embedded with troops in Afghanistan, told me, “When I returned from Afghanistan, my mother was glad that I was safe back home.” Instead, Rubano has been assaulted several times while filming.
“After Palermo, it was very dangerous,” Antonio Ricci, Brumotti’s boss and the founder of Striscia, told me in his office in the Mediaset headquarters, in Milan. “It was also very dangerous for the people around.”
Brumotti decided he would start filming all his segments in the same style as his other work: on a bike. In his trials riding, he was gradually shifting to a more commuter-style bike, wearing regular clothes to promote the idea of cycling as something for everyone, not just athletes dressed in the right gear. Soon there was Brumotti, looking like a hipster courier, his bike equipped with GoPros and bright lights, pedaling against the “pushers,” as he began calling them. It looked like The Sopranos meets Premium Rush.
His approach has had critics. A writer for Vice Italy chronicled a list of complaints: that Brumotti is not a journalist; that the situations he was “exposing” had already been chronicled by real reporters, at grave danger to themselves; that his only goal was to “provoke extreme and marketable reactions in prime time.” And presumably no one, perhaps not even Brumotti himself, believes he’s going to bring down a sophisticated criminal network by targeting its lowest-level members on a bike.
Ricci, who founded Striscia as a satirical commentary on the Italian populists and the journalists aligned with them, counters that it’s precisely because Brumotti is not a journalist that his message is potent. “He’s a champion in what he did,” he says. “People trust him.”
As corny as it sounds, maybe, against a seemingly intractable enemy, the public needs someone like this left-field, semi-comic superhero. “People are used to reporters coming in with cameras,” says Andrea Oddone, Brumotti’s manager and a friend since childhood. “He comes riding through the pushers doing stunts, taking selfies with the people. They say, ‘What the fuck? Why with bicycle?’”
Someone investigating organized crime’s long-standing hold on Italy might respond: Why not?
Much later on the day I toured the warehouse, I found myself in a nondescript hotel room on the outskirts of Turin, a couple hours’ drive from Liguria. Clustered on two beds were Brumotti; the journalist Rubano; his manager, Oddone; a cameraman; me and my photographer; and a man, shabbily dressed, with a worn, sympathetic, stubbled face. He was known only as Mr. X.
It was a planning meeting for the night’s stakeouts. Turin is the historical birthplace of Fiat, home to the famed Juventus football club, and, historically, an ’Ndrangheta hot spot. The team chose this obscure hotel, across the street from a UPS depot, so there’d be less chance of Brumotti being spotted.
Mr. X, a man with previous connections to criminal organizations, is the team’s eyes and ears for illicit activity in the city. He would be going in, undercover, to solicit drugs. (He would not, however, actually buy any drugs, which would be illegal.) Brumotti asked the photographer not to include his face in any shots.
On a desk, an array of recording devices were scattered around, most of them concealed inside other objects: a pen, a pair of eyeglasses, and, most cleverly, an unopened bottle of San Benedetto water. I was torn between thinking that these guys were just playing at being undercover cops and worrying that they were treading on truly dangerous ground.
The target was what Brumotti refers to as the little mafia—the criminal startups, whose members are often immigrants, that do the street dealing at the tail end of the ’Ndrangheta supply chains. Still, nothing was left to chance: the team would wear antiballistic vests.
We climbed into a van and headed for Turin. Driving down a dark and mostly empty street called Corso Palermo, we passed a small pocket park, occupied mostly by men, the majority seeming to be of African origin. “Pusher,” Brumotti said, pointing. “Pusher, pusher.”
I couldn’t help feeling that there was simple racial profiling at work here, part of a nagging suspicion that anti-mafia work is anti-immigrant work under a different guise. In the course of his stunt work, Brumotti has been filmed alongside a populist right-wing politician named Matteo Salvini, but Alessandro Corallo, a junior producer at Mediaset, tells me there’s no bond between them. “I can say for sure he is not a Salvini supporter or fan,” he says. “At Striscia we stay away from politicians.” Perhaps to address this concern, Brumotti has started to focus more on ’Ndrangheta in his clips, rather than on adjacent immigrant-run organizations.
“How do you know they’re all dealers?” I asked skeptically.
“I’ve tested it many times, in the streets,” he said.
We pulled over a few blocks away. The team checked the cameras Mr. X was wearing. He exited the van. A few minutes later we heard him, crackling through a portable speaker, chatting up a dealer. A transaction was proposed, but Mr. X said he needed to hit an ATM. The dealer offered to escort him. Mr. X politely declined.
Once he was safely away from the dealers, Mr. X called in. Brumotti barked directions. “Don’t talk so much, you’re covering up too much of the action,” he said. “And please be less smart about the drugs. Ask, naively, ‘Can I smoke this?’”
As Mr. X returned to the park, Brumotti prepared his bicycle. Rubano donned a flak jacket, as did my photographer. There were none left, so Brumotti advised me to stay in the van. “It’s little mafia, but they usually have knives,” he said. (Indeed, a few months later, Brumotti and his crew would be attacked by dealers with knives while filming in the city of Monza.)
As we waited, Brumotti noticed a pair of passersby peering into the van. He shouted a string of obscenities: “Suca! Vaffanculo!” Suck it! He was staging a fake argument, avoiding suspicion by attracting attention.
Word came in: Mr. X had confirmed the goods—footage later showed the dealer extracting a few pellets of cellophane-wrapped cocaine from his mouth. Brumotti flung open the door, dropped to the pavement, and pedaled toward the park. The cameraman was on the move, too. It was a block away, and dark, but I could see several men grab bicycles of their own and flee. Brumotti chased them, then returned to the park, where he was surrounded by an animated crowd.
From a distance, I sensed danger. A loitering man wearing a hoodie suddenly moved to the back of the van and took a picture of the license plate. The street seemed to come alive with secret menace.
I looked back to the park and was met with a surreal sight: Brumotti, bounding off benches on his bike, doing 180s and wheelies before an audience whose cell phones were raised in the air. He stopped for a few selfies, then returned to the van.
Jet-lagged, I went back to the hotel, but Brumotti and his team stayed out until the wee hours, scouring Turin’s predawn streets. Two days later, back in Milan on the set of Striscia, Brumotti told me about some drama I’d missed. He was out in Turin’s Barriera di Milano neighborhood the next day, and he paused for a selfie with a fan, a 22-year-old Romanian. As it turned out, the man was on the run from a two-year jail sentence for property crimes. A team of undercover police, drawn to the scene by the commotion, recognized the suspect. They waited for the selfie to be taken, then made the arrest.
Many months later, with coronavirus in full swing, I’m surprised to see new “100% Brumotti” segments appearing on Striscia. There he is, on his bike, chasing—and being chased by—drug dealers.
When I reach Brumotti by Skype at his parents’ home, he tells me he’s lucky that the virus hasn’t claimed anyone in his immediate family, but that some close friends have been infected. Yet despite the tragic backdrop, the cloistering has had a silver lining. “Italian people live for the family,” he tells me.
He flashes a piece of paper before the camera; it’s a carta ufficiale that lets the holder venture outside during Italy’s lockdown to conduct necessary business. Approved as an essential worker, Brumotti also has a pass allowing him free movement around the country, but without a camera crew. So he’s been taking to the nearly empty streets by himself, equipped with four GoPros. The country’s hotels are closed, he says, so he’s been sleeping in his car.
I ask, as diplomatically as possible, whether the drug trade is really Italy’s biggest issue right now. “The drugs in this moment are not the problem,” he says. “The problem is 25 guys together.” As it happens, while we talk, a new segment is about to air on Striscia. He aims the phone at the television and narrates as we watch together. He’s in Padua, yelling at some dealers who are standing close together, unmasked, as they hover over product in a park.
While many of the open-air drug markets seen in normal times are now empty, the fact that people are still clustering has turned Brumotti, at least temporarily, into a kind of social-distancing crusader.
The clips are just one example of how, for the ’Ndrangheta and organizations like it, the coronavirus pandemic represents both danger and opportunity. Criminal business has been interrupted, and one lucky police patrol managed to catch a clan boss because he was violating quarantine. (In a Hollywood moment, a lit cigarette gave him away.) And yet, as the national newspaper La Stampa observed, when Italy emerges from the crisis, the very economic activities that will recover first—from trucking to hospital waste disposal—are activities the gangs already control in many areas.
Brumotti, who always seems to have his eye on the next challenge, is hardly slowing down. His book on drugs and the mafia will be released later this year by Mondadori, Italy’s largest publisher.
“I have another project to make a big reportage around the world,” he tells me. “The favelas [of Brazil]. On to Canada. The Bronx. I want to speak with my bicycle.”