The Italian national team coach Franco Ballerini was victim of a fatal car
accident early this morning. Ballerini, who became a rallying passionate a
couple years ago, was seriously injured during the Rally Ronde di Larciano
race - which he was taking part to as co-driver/navigator for professional
driver Alessandro Ciardi, also seriously injured in the accident - near
Pistoia in Tuscany as their car (a Renault New Clio Sport R3) reportedly
crashed into a wall on the outskirts of Serravalle Pistoiese town around 0845
AM local time, and died of his wounds at the Pistoia city hospital one and a
half hours later.
He was 45 years old.
Franco Ballerini at the post race press conference of the Trofeo Melinda in
September 2009 where he watched the race to help make his final decision for
the Azzurri team for the Mendrisio world road championships.
Photo © 2009 Fotoreporter Sirotti
Born in Florence on December 11, 1964, Franco Ballerini was before anything
else an excellent bike racer himself. He made his debut in the pro ranks in
the Magniflex team back in the days of 1986, and it didn't take long for the
guy to show his mettle in Classics and one-day races: the following year he
stamped his authority on the Tre Valli Varesine mid-summer event, then made it
to the top of the podium in many a good contests in the next few seasons too.
Still the race Ballero's name is mostly linked to is, beyond any reasonable
doubt, Paris-Roubaix. He emerged triumphant from "Cobblestoned Chaos" both in
1995 and 1998. But it took a lot of efforts and struggles since his "first
time" in 1989 for the man to achieve such results, it took several lost
battles against the Hell of the North", like when he was beaten to the
line by yet another P-R legend, Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle, in an epic duel in
the springtime of 1993. This melting pot of victories and defeats in the dried
mud, but notably the way he used to give it everything in the toughest of all
Classics, helped him build the legend of Monsieur Roubaix, the nickname
he was, is and will be forever remembered by. The French fans knew that very
well, and that's the reason why they welcomed Ballerini with a great standing
ovation as he entered the Roubaix velodrome for the last time (as a
rider) in the year 2001.
Respected and popular among the riders, Franco is greeted by Alessandro
Petacchi at the Coppa Bernocchi
Photo © 2009 Fotoreporter Sirotti
A few months later, he took over as coach of the "Squadra Azzurra". And he
started to pick up win after win also in that place. Under Ballero's guidance,
the failures and "civil wars" that made the news each time the Italian Men
senior national team were on the road at the Worlds in the late 1990s gave
room to an impressive string of victories.
It all started when, also thanks to a perfect teamwork, Ballerini's comrade
and fellow Tuscan Mario Cipollini was able to clinch the rainbow jersey for
the first time at Zolder in October 2002. One gold wasn't enough for Maestro
Ballerini anyway. Further triumphs came as the guy led another racing legend
from the "Granduchy of cycling", Paolo Bettini, to the top of the Olympic
podium at Athens in the summer of 2004, and to no less than TWO World Titles
in a row in the years 2006 and 2007 respectively.
The helluva team job done by the whole Squadra, and consequently
Ballero's abilities as a coach, were no stranger to the Cricket's
accomplishments. But the tifosi were asking for more, and the man from
Florence didn't disappoint them: another tactical masterpiece by the men in
sky blue colours set up Alessandro Ballan for an unprecented hat-trick of
Italian World Champ triumphs on a sunny Sunday of late September, 2008. The
streets of Varese packed by fans gone wild as the white, red and green flag
was on the top of the cycling planet again will stay in the minds of cycling
fans as the last tribute to Tuscany's Maestro.
Franco Ballerini and his predecessor, Alfredo Martini. Between the two, they
guided the Italian national team to ten world championships and an Olympic
gold medal. Photo © 2009
In his last time at the front of the Azzurri, the Squadra (as well as Spain
and other top teams) were outfoxed by Cadel Evans and the Australian's
sensational performance on Swiss soil. But you can be sure that Ballero was
already working on - and making plans for - Italy's redemption in Melbourne.
Sometimes fate may be so cruel though, and it sure was as it messed up all of
Ballero's plans when the grey skies of a cold early February morning took the
Maestro away ...
Ciao Franco, ci mancherai. We shall miss you ... :(