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Worlds Country Preview: Italy (Elite Men)
 
By Fabio
Date: 10/7/2002
Worlds Country Preview: Italy (Elite Men)
 

"No matter who wins the World Championships, as long as it's one of us. It's important for the riders, the Federation, and Italian cycling as a whole that, now more than ever, needs a prestigious victory to regain visibility and esteem".

"Bettini and Cipollini are two men currently in great condition, but with different features. So we'll need to make the most out of our team according to the race dynamics".

"This team is a bet for me too, and I think it can be a very good one".

All these sentences, pronounced by coach Franco Ballerini on Monday's afternoon, right after the name list of the 14 riders (two reserves included) that will be part of Italy's National Team for the Elite Men's Road Race at the coming World Championships was released, perfectly represent the Italian state of mind on the eve of a competition that could finally bring the title back to Rome and surroundings after a 10-year period.

Ten years: too a long time for many countries, even more for a nation steadily standing atop the relative UCI Rankings (with a wide margin over the second too ...), and used to frequent wins in GTs, stage races, one-day contests, World Cups, but NOT the World Championships. It makes an even bigger impact as you notice that the contest I'm talking about is a one-day race and, unlike other countries (Spain for instance) whose "cycling culture" is leaning more towards longer competitions, Italy is a kind of "University" for one-day races. Most regional Tours belong in this category, and the results got by Italian riders in shorter competitions are a further prove of how strong they are in these races. The numbers of the latest Spring Classics, with Italians taking five races out of seven, leaving only two of them to Belgian archrivals and nothing but some placings for the rest of the World, say it all.

But unfortunately for Italians, this domination of the Classics of the North has not been recently followed by similar performances in the year's most important one-day competition. The last time an Italian was seen with a gold medal hanging around his neck (after the Elite Men's Road Race, of course) was in 1992, when the vast majority of cycling fans haven't heard yet of a Texan rider named Lance, and Gianni Bugno played a little trick on race favorite Miguel Indurain (at the time uncontested Tour de France dominator) by taking the title in "his" Spain.

Since then Italy got some silver and bronze stuff (see the statistics in the last page of this article), but as for the most prestigious metal ... nothing ! Nada ! Niente !. It was glory for some "superpowers" (Spain, France, Belgium) as well as not exactly cycling-mad countries such as Latvia, but NOT Italy. Not even hosting the World Championships on home roads for two times (Sicily in 1994 and Veneto five years later) was of any help. Quite the contrary: Italian riders and fans were forced to watch their French and Spanish rivals all smiles while wearing the Rainbow Jersey: Luc Leblanc won in Agrigento, and in 1999 Oscar Freire a man from "the land of stage races" - came to the "University of one-day races" and gave a cycling lesson to the local "professors"

How could it happen? How did the strongest and perhaps most accomplished one-day racers miss the gold for such a long time? The first reason, well-known among cycling fans worldwide, and never going out of fashion in recent years, is related to riders' behaviour during the race. Riders often strong and talented, but also featured by a selfish attitude preventing them to work for their mates, and a frequent inclination to regard themselves as members of a Trade Team FIRST, and only LATER as part of the "Squadra". As a result, sometimes members of the Italian National squad ride against each other and in favour of their "usual" team-mates occasionally wearing the jersey of another country.

The latest, most blatant example of such attitudes was given last year: when Gilberto Simoni went on a solo breakaway during the final lap of the Portuguese circuit, and opened a significant gap, his World title hopes were frustrated by the peloton's chasing efforts started, and partially done, by a so-called "team-mate", Paolo Lanfranchi, who moved to the front of the peloton to set a fast pace while his compatriot was in the break. Afterwards Lanfranchi tried to justify his conduct saying he didn't realize, and wasn't told Simoni was in the lead, but there's one more detail against him: during the rest of the year Lanfranchi was wearing the Mapei jersey, and after "Gibo" got caught (also due to Lanfranchi's chasing work) the race ended in a small bunch sprint, with ... two Mapeis taking the top places. What a coincidence, one might (quite sarcastically) say...

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