FRANCO BALLERINI: Apart from Superstar Mario Cipollini, the other member of the Italian contingent that mostly captured the media's attention after Italy's triumphald ride was, quite predictably, team coach Franco Ballerini. Until Sunday the 38-year-old Tuscan was mainly regarded as "Monsieur Roubaix", thanks to his two wins in the most prestigious Spring Classic. But now he has got a brand new "status": the coach able to bring the title back to his country after a 10-year absence.
That turned him into a guest of more than a Radio or Tv transmission on Monday and Tuesday. Such that even "Radio anch'io" (literally "Radio ... me too"), a radio broadcast going live on weekdays on the RAI 1 channel, and usually talking of everything (politics in particular) but cycling, opened its doors, and microphones, to this sport. Other media (papers like the "Gazzetta dello Sport", TV channels etc.) accustomed or not to cycling talking, did the same. Here's a wrap-up of what the man said in front of the microphones.
About the dynamics of Sunday's race and the parts played by the different members of the Italian team: "We had some riders working since the early part of the contest, others doing the leadout work at the end, and Mario winning. We made the most out of a race we were the main favorites of. Outcomes of the minor category competitions disputed in the previous days had showed us how difficult it was for a breakaway group to make it to the end, in such a route. We got two riders who rode hard for the first 100 km. anyway, so we could take it easier. And in the end we got a guy in the most important spot and two others just a few places behind, celebrating his victory".
Of course, he couldn't help but praising the efforts of the whole team (better: the team as a whole). This was the most fashionable topic in almost every post-race interview and commentary. And of course Ballerini explained, once more, the reasons behind his choices: "I needed a sprinter with only few alternatives to him. And the boys fully understood what was necessary to do. The fact that Italy was coming a long period without winning the title, too many indeed, helped. I will never stop saying it: they were a bunch of guys who chose to be a real team, made the right choices, and accomplished a kind of masterpiece"
Somebody might have been unhappy at Ballerini's choices too. The first name could be Michele Bartoli, one of Italy's most-talented riders, and even in a good condition during this period (as two recent victories proved). But also a man that in the past had some troubles with his team-mates, both at Mapei and inside Italy's squad. And asked about the men he left home, Ballerini replied that "I have always acted in keeping with my ideas. I tried to "preview" the race dynamics and well, I wouldn't say things completely went that way, but I did bet on a bunch of hard workers, that was what I needed, and seems that facts proved me right".
"Ballero" also expressed his hopes that after Sunday's race Italian cycling, currently not through good times in spite of all the wins (Giro, World Cup and other one-day and stage races) it got, may have really turned the page, and can head towards better times. Surely on Monday we saw good omens: ""Taking the Rainbow Jersey back to Italy after a 10-year absence provides immense satisfaction to me. And so did the way our team was welcomed back home. Even the planes were blowing the horn !!!. Such kind of things, and the huge support we got from ordinary people, send a good message to the whole Italian cycling environment".
Interviewed also after his arrival at Milano's Linate airport on Monday, the team coach sounded like being even more enthusiast about his riders' performances."We spent the night between Sunday and Monday celebrating. And at 4 AM I turned on the Tv and watched the race on a tape, such that I was finally able to enjoy it the way I couldn't during the competition itself, when I was follwoing it in the team car. And I'm going to do it again and again in the next days. The performance of the whole squad was a real masterpiece, the last lap in particular should be part of an anthology of cycling. It should go on a CD-Rom and be delivered to anyone wishing to learn to ride".
And again: "The boys really achieved a great result. All of them, the "hard workers" who played their part earlier in the race, as well as the ones charged with doing the leadout work in the final, acted like true professionals; they gave everything they could".
Franco Ballerini ended his interview with a short, more in-depth glance at the causes that made Italy's exploit possible "Many a factor helped the team to stay united and keep motivations high: the pride of being part of the national squad, the eagerness for redemption in such a bad moment for Italian cycling, and the long time the "Squadra" had been spending without taking the title. All these key-factors played their part in the masterpiece the boys accomplished on Sunday"
Mario Scirea:: If at the age of 38 Ballerini led the "Azzurri" all the way to their victory right from the team car, another "boy of '64" (even older than him by a few months), still was on his bike, to give it all - as usual - for his captain and personal friend. I'm talking of Mario Scirea. The Acqua & Sapone rider added a new gem, probably the most precious, to "his" collection of ... Cipollini's victories, and after the race he said that "This might have been one of the last challenges in my career. I hope I may continue for one more year, but I'm not sure. That's why I cared a lot about helping Mario to win the Gold medal. And to achieve such a result in my fourteenth year as a professional rider is no little thing to me".
Besides him, another accomplished member of the "Zebrato" train (occasionally riding in different colors) was there, just do his ordinary leadout work for the Lion King: 33-year-old Giovanni Lombardi from Pavia. Like many other riders, he stressed the collective effort of the Italian squad: "This victory has given an immense joy to us all. We showed that the team may act as one, and set up a united group in the last four days, and the credit should go to each of the fourteen members, the two reserves (A & S's Bennati and Landbouwkrediet's Bernucci) included, as they always stood beside and helped us. We worked hard to reach the target; Bramati and Scinto did their job in the early part, when they set a fast pace to prevent dangerous breakaways to form. And the others were up to their respective tasks too. Our work was made easier by the consciouness that in the roster we had the best sprinter around, as Mario once more proved. A guarantee for us".
Having the fastest wheels of the peloton as team-mate could delight many, but also cause a mixed reaction to Paolo Bettini: The 28-year-old Tuscan expressed all of his satisfaction at Cipo's win ("I'm very happy for Mario. This was a chance he couldn't waste") but it's well known that the man himself is an extraordinary condition in this period, such that, in case of successful breakaway (with the man inside), he could have many possibilties to take the title he slightly missed last year. And Ballerini's alternative plans did provide for this opportunity. But things took a diferent turn, no serious breakaway was allowed, and "Il Grillo" complied with orders and kept chasing down Museeuw instead of riding away with him.
Even without many regrets: "With an average speed of more than 46 km/h, and the winds not helping would-be escapees, you can't pretend to go and stay clear; it would be simply impossible. So we all stayed united, and I did what I had to. First I helped stopping some breakaway attempts, and later played my part in leading out Mario. I just couldn't help him in the sprint, as I got dropped after mistaking a turn with about 1.5 km. to go, But this was a factor I had taken into consideration before". Just one regret though "A pity that the team didn't work together in a similar fashion one year ago in Lisbon. Perhaps I could have won then". He will be given the opportunity to take revenge next Saturday, where he could grab his first World Cup at Giro di Lombardia.
Part of the final leadout work was done by Alessandro Petacchi. A possible medalist (he recently outsprinted Erik Zabel more than one time, after all) sacrificing all of his chances in order to help a one-day teammate, rival for the rest of the year. This was probably the best impersonation of Italy's attitude. The Fassa-Bortolo sprinter won at least the compliments of Gianluca Bortolami "Petacchi played fair. After Scirea ended his leadout work a little earlier than usual, I played my part, but it was Petacchi that, in perfect accordance with plans, did the very final part of the job to help Mario".
More comments. Danilo Di Luca: another guy that could have some legitimate aspiration to win any medal, but nonetheless chose to put himself at Cipo's disposal, pointed out the difference between the past Italian teams and the "Squadra" at Zolder: "This victory provided a big satisfaction. It was my fourth time at the World Championships (as a pro) and whereas our way of conduct in some of the past editions stirred polemics, this time it was absolutely impeccable. I did what I had to, I rode tempo on the ascent, right before the time for sprinters and leadout men to take over the job came"
To Saeco's Fabio Sacchi now: "I was particularly proud of helping Mario. They can say whatever they want about him, but one thing is for sure: he's truly professional and fully deserving of the Rainbow Jersey. I rode hard for one lap and a half, and when I noticed the crash in the final part, I set a faster pace. Eventually I did the leadout work for Di Luca, helping him to regain the front of the peloton". The Milanese sprinter also asked, on behalf of the whole group, that every Cipo's "domestique" may be given a rainbow jersey signed by the Lion King in person, because This is the team's victory"
Now to Luca "the Piton" Scinto, another veteran and "ideal teammate", whose efforts were fundamental in the first part of the ride "At some point of the race my legs were acheing, but deep inside of me I was thinking that if had done one more, little effort, I could have been of help to the squad. That's the way I am, that's my way of riding. When a team has got more men ready to make sacrifices for the others, and ride into headwinds and face crosswinds for 230 km, to stay united becomes an easier thing".
After the coach and riders, time for the President of the Italian Cycling Federation Gian Carlo Ceruti, finally with something to cheer for after the bad performances of the past years, and the doping scandals recently involving Italian cycling, to have his say. Acytually he got more things to be happy of. Not just Cipo's victory, but also four more medals (two of which were gold medals) earned by Italian contenders in six days of competition: "What maked me particularly happy is that besides Mario and his gold medal there are several promising youngsters. Hope this may help the Italian cycling movement as a whole to grow further. Thanks a lot to each of them" The hope that these Italian victories may help the FCI to overcome this difficult moment, and attract new sponsors into cycling (don't forget the sport is about to miss Mapei ...) was expressed also by the Federation's secretary Alessandro Pila.
One more guy happy (and relieved) at the Italian performances was CONI's President Giovanni Petrucci. Cycling was hitting the headlines for a different reason than doping at last. And he couldn't help but praising the Lion King and the "Azzurri": Cipollini was sensational. He was extra-motivated and assumed a great deal of responsibility. We knew that all of his rivals had an eye on him, and he was strictly marked. Only great champions are able to do the right thing under such circumstances. But I must say that it actually was the team's victory too, not just his own. The "Squadra" was simply perfect."
Who's left ? Gianni Bugno of course ! Until Sunday the former pro rider was mentioned tons of times as the last Italian able to win the title in the EMRR. Now he has lost this "status" to Mario Cipollini, but doesn't sound that upset "I want to congratulate Mario over his victory. It was a fantastic thing. In my opinion the final result was the right one". He was also outspoken about the eventuality of Super Mario leaving the sport "I can't see why such a rider should retire now. He still is the best sprinter around. Nobody is better".
Another man who knows well Cipollini is fellow Tuscan, Antonio Salutini, Team manager of the "Lion King" at both Saeco (before) and A & S (now): "I knew that he was going to do it. I know Mario very well. He was so eager to hit the target. And nervous too, as he was aware of the fact he couldn't afford to fail this time. He didn't, and victory number 181, the sixteenth in the season for him, came. This World title is just the icing on the cake fora career that only few great riders may have. But I think he could have done ever more. Indeed, only after reaching the age of 30 Cipollini achieved that maturity which helped him to get his biggest satisfactions".
Evantually we ... get into politics. Unlike Armstrong (George Bush Jr.) or Virenque (France's Jacques Chirac), Mario Cipollini isn't a close friend of any famous politicians, but this didn't prevent the Presidents of both Italy (Carlo Azeglio Ciampi) and the Belgium-based European Commission (Romano Prodi, a huge cycling fan himself) from hailing the great result achieved by their fellow countryman.