Crotone coach Davide Nicola is starting a very unusual bicycle trip on Friday. From Calabria at the end of the "boot" of Italy, he is set to ride north to Torino -- about 1,300 kilometers which will take just over a week -- to celebrate his side's survival in Serie A against all odds.
Nicola made the promise on April 7, after Crotone recorded their first away win of the season: 2-1 at Chievo. It was only their fourth win in the 2016-17 campaign, and the chances of avoiding the drop still looked slim given they had spent the entire season in relegation zone, and were five points behind 17th-place Empoli at the time.
However, Nicola stated that he would go on the ride if he managed to keep the team up.
"It was natural for me to think about it. I love biking, and do so a lot in my free time," Nicola told ESPN FC. "Ever since the first day of the season, I thought that we would stay up. It wasn't easy, but everything is possible if you work hard, make progress step-by-step and believe in yourself."
The manager's unbreakable spirit was the secret behind the phenomenal run. Crotone had only 14 points after 29 matches, but took another 20 points from their last nine fixtures -- starting with that triumph at Chievo. In the form table, they were the best team in Serie A during that period and the 3-1 win over Lazio on the final matchday saw them leapfrog Empoli, who lost 2-1 at Palermo. It was an improbable fairy-tale, given the circumstances.
Nicola's appointment had been met with skepticism by Crotone fans in the summer after Ivan Juric, the local idol who masterminded the historic first-ever promotion to Serie A, had left for Genoa. The club offered the job to Roberto De Zerbi and Fabio Grosso, but both refused to take it.
Nicola, who had a reputation of playing overly defensive football and a resume which included being relegated with Livorno in Serie A in 2014 and sacked by second-division Bari in 2016, was the last option. The fact he only arrived at the end of June, made preparations for the new season even more difficult.
Many of the players who secured last year's promotion, including star Croatian striker Ante Budimir, left the club. The squad had to be rebuilt from scratch, with key additions Diego Falcinelli and Lorenzo Crisetig arriving on loan on the last day of the summer transfer window.
In addition, Crotone were forced to play their first home matches in Pescara because reconstruction of the tiny Stadio Ezio Scida wasn't completed in time due to bureaucratic problems. It is erected on archeological site from ancient Greek times, and special permission from the Calabria authorities were needed to build new stands.
Taking those issues into account, it is easy to understand why Crotone started the season taking just a single point from their first nine games. And yet, club owner Raffaele Vrenna kept saying that Nicola's job was safe, regardless of results.
With such backing, the coach started to make necessary adjustments. He tried to keep Juric's 3-4-3 formation initially, but switched to 4-4-2 in September, and the team gradually improved, even though the defeats kept piling up. Crotone suffered from inexperience, naivety, bad luck and poor refereeing decisions, and lost points in the last minutes of matches.
By March, their situation looked totally hopeless, but Vrenna stated once again: "Nicola will stay until the end of the season."
"Ninety-nine percent of Italian clubs would have sacked Nicola, but he remained, and his self-confidence made others believe that a miracle is possible," local supporter Riccardo Cantafora told ESPN FC. "The players showed outstanding courage under him, and their chemistry with the coach was superb."
Then, after Nicola's promise to ride a bicycle across Italy if they stayed up, Crotone's luck changed and enjoyed great fortune in the last two months of the season. Five wins from eight games was incredible, but they still had to rely on relegated Palermo to beat Empoli on the final day of the season before facing Lazio themselves.
Ahead of the last match, Nicola made an emotional statement at the news conference. "This is a fantastic team that plays with passion and organisation. Our story is the best message the people of Crotone. Nobody gave us a chance, but we are still here," he said.
In fact, he is now the darling of the entire country. Nicola's open letter to his late son Alessandro, killed in a road accident at the age of 14 in 2014 while riding his bike, made the nation cry.
"I know you have always been with me. Your energy gave me the strength to keep fighting and pursuing the impossible," the coach wrote. And now, Alessandro will be with him on his own bicycle journey that will end at the site of the tragedy in Vigone.
The trip will take Nicola through Bari, Pescara, Ancona, Livorno, Genoa and Torino -- places where he played and coached throughout his career. "I enjoyed living and working in those cities, and it will be possible to meet old friends in each of them. This feels like the right thing to do," Nicola told ESPN FC.
His experience in 2016-17 is incomparable to the past, though. "It was a fantastic season, and I will remember it for a very long time," he said. Crotone and the whole of Italy will never forget it either.