Less than a dozen days away from the Athens race, Italy's best Olympic prospect, Paolo Bettini is in fine form. Or so it seems, at least according to his accomplishments in the most recent pre-olympic challenges.
After taking second in last Sunday's HEW Cyclassics World Cup leg "The Cricket" chirped again Wednesday, as he captured the UCI-1.2 sanctioned GP Camaiore in his home region Tuscany. The classy rider of Quick-Step Davitamon edged out two other big names of Italy's professional peloton: Saeco's Danilo Di Luca and Bettini's most loyal domestique Luca Paolini (who has just been included in the Italian National quintet for the Athens RR after Michele Bartoli gave up because of his poor condition) both finishing 10" behind the winner.
Two more big names of the pro cycling scene such as Damiano Cunego and Gilberto Simoni were among the race protagonists, as they tried to chase down Bettini in the last part of the event, but didn't succeed, and the Giro d'Italia reigning champion didn't get higher than 25th.
It was Bettini's first ever victory in the Tuscan race, but the man's sixth triumph -after two stages and the overall at Tirreno-Adriatico, a Tour of the Mediterrenean leg and a Tour de Suisse Stage- so far this season, and his second ever solo win, after he claimed the Tour of Switzerland stage into Bellinzona in a similar fashion about one and a half months ago.
Another proof of Paolo Bettini's excellent shape is the average speed (a more than excellent 43.7 kph) he set in spite of the hot weather conditions (with temperatures around 30°-32° C) and the tough parcours of the race, starting with a flat circuit around the town of Camaiore, but continuing into six laps of the 25-km. Monte Pitoro circuit, that encompassed as many ascents of the same Monte Pitoro climb, and with the last difficulty of the day, Monte Magno, peaking with just about 6 km. to the line.
The 55th Gran Premio Cittá di Camaiore saw the return to the professional cycling scene of controversial Lithuanian Raimondas Rumsas, after the twelve-month suspension he was awarded for a positive test for EPO. On the other side Davide Rebellin, Italy's biggest absentee from the Olympics (when it comes to cycling at least) didn't take the start line instead. And Daniele Nardello, who will be in Greece instead, wasn't at the startline either.
The contest got off to a fast start, with a 10-strong breakway forming no more than 10 kilometres into the race. Among the ten brave guys were three English-speakers: South Africa's National Road Champion Ryan Cox and his Barloworld team-mate Sean Sullivan of Australia, plus Britain's Tom Southam of Amore & Vita-Beretta. The remainder of the leading bunch consisted of Simoni's #1 domestique and fellow Trentino Leonardo Bertagnolli of Saeco, Acqua & Sapone's Ruggiero Marzoli, Panaria's neopro Emanuele Sella (the Giro's second biggest revelation after Damiano Cunego), Tenax's Cristiano Frattini, Hungary's best-known pro rider Laszlo Bodrogi (Quick Step-Davitamon) and Southam's teammate Aliaksandr Kuschynski of Belarus, winner of the Tour of Abruzzo overall and a Tour of Slovenia stage so far this year.
But they were just nine, so who was the tenth man outside the bunch? But Mr. Andrea Tafi, of course! Back in the saddle after the accident he was involved in at the Peace Race kept the man from racing the Giro and Tour, the Alessio-Bianchi tuscan, who according to rumors is gonna hang up his wheels in "Johan Museeuw style", e.g. with the (2005) Paris-Roubaix as his last "big" race, showed that he hasn't lost anything of his combative attitude, and took most Intermediate Sprints contested early in the race. Of course, when it comes to climbing, it's a whole different thing, as the L-B-L 2002 winner was the first one to get dropped as the race hit Monte Pitoro.
The other leaders extended their advantage to 06'10" by km. 60, but then Alessandro Petacchi's Fassamen (Petito and Bruseghin in particular) moved to the front of the bunch and mounted a more serious chase of the (now) nine-strong breakaway. And with some help from a few other teams, including Alessio-Bianchi working for Italy's National Road Champion Cristian Moreni, and Moreni's future team Quick Step working for Bettini, the Fassas succeeded, as after the peloton gained about a minute over the escapees in each lap of the Monte Pitoro circuit, the escappees were finally pulle dback with a dozen km. to go. Bodrogi and Frattini were the first ones (after Tafi) to lose contact and be swallowed by the bunch, wheareas Sullivan stayed clear a little longer, and Sella, Bertagnolli, Cox and Marzoli were the last ones to give up the fight. But with 12-13k to the line, and after a penultimate-lap attempt to break away from the field put in by Damiano Cunego, immediately joined by Bettini, didn't prosper, it was "Gruppo Compatto" again.
Not for long anyway, as when the race hit Monte Pitoro -which, as much as it often did in past editions of the event, proved decisive in determining the race winner- for the sixth and last time, Bettini made the winning move: he fastened his pace on the first slopes of the ascent, and nobody could follow his wheel. In fact another rider of the excellent Team Barloworld-Androni Giocattoli, Gabriele Missaglia, initially tried to counter Bettini's attack, but he couldn't, and instead of joining "The Cricket", it was him who was soon later joined by Poland's Przemyslaw Niemec (Team Miche) and ... Damiano Cunego!
The Giro d'Italia winner gave a further display of his talent as, regardless of the few kilometres in his legs (he raced just the Italian Nationals and Brixia Tour in the last 4-5 weeks), he proved able to compete with more in-form riders coming all the way from Le Tour de France. Riders like his teammate-rival Gilberto Simoni, who joined the chasing trio a few mins later. But the trio turned a quarter quickly baecame a widerr chasing bunch as more and more riders, among which were Russia's National Road Champion Alexander Kolobnev and his Domina Vacanze teammate Max Gentili, plus neopro Antonio D'Aniello (Miche, Italy's Elite 2 National Road Race Champion in the past season) and Lampre's Francesco Casagrande (finally back to a quite a decent performance) regained their wheels.
Simoni attacked again with 1 km. to the Monte Pitoro summit (and with his gap to Bettini up to 13"), and Cunego followed his move. In the short descent afterwards the Saeco duo was joined by white-red-and-blue jersey wearer Kolobnev, although the Russian wasn't much of help to the chase. Actually neither Simoni nor Cunego were much of help to themselves: the two didn't exactly work well together, and some verbal skirmishes between them, although not so unusual in similar races and situations, might suggest that their Giro d'Italia quarrels still have an impact on them.
Gibo, Damiano and Kolobnev didn't make any gain on Bettini, whose advantage was still hovering at 12-13 seconds in the false-flat section between Monte Pitoro and Monte Magno, and were even joined by a fourth rider. Filippo Simeoni, combative also when Armstrong is not around. But again - the presence of two Saecos and as many Dominas in the first chasing bunch didn't make things worse for Bettini. Quite the opposite instead: the Tuscan was flying on Monte Magno and the following descent into Camaiore, while the chasing quartet was caught by a further group of 15-16 men (containing Di Luca and Paolini, but neither Moreni nor Pozzato, as the two other members of the Italian National Team for Athens got dropped while climbing the Pitoro for the sixth time).
Such that in the end Bettini could finally raise his arms in triumph here, while the fairheaded Abruzzese (who's that guy? Di Luca, of course!) won the sprint for second place from Paolini, CSC's Luxembourgian Kim Kirchen and Italia's own D'Aniello and Giunti.
In post-win interviews, a smiling (is it news?) Bettini said that "When I saw Damiano (Cunego) attack in the penultimate lap I tried and followed him. Then I slowed down the pace as I knew that just the two of us couldn't go too far with so many kms. remaoiming. But at the same time I started thinking that I could do it, and told Dufaux to move to the front of the peloton in order to help the chase. As the race hit the (Pitoro) climb for the last time, I thought "At the Tour de France I made plenty of efforts to get into shape, so it's time to have a go now. So I attacked, and gave everything I could in the 3.5-km. ascent" and again "I'm starting to take a liking at solo wins. My two latest victories came in such a way: the first one in was in Switzerland, and now this one, in front of the Tuscan tifosi, and that's great. I missed victory by a whisker in Hamburg this past Sunday, and I got it today: that serves as a huge moral boost for the forthcoming challenges".
Speaking of upcoming challenges, one can't help but asking of Bettini's number one target: the Olympic Road Race, which will see Il Grillo's #1 domestique Luca Paolini at the start line, replacing out-of-form Bartoli "I'm very sorry for Michele", Bettini admitted "and I'm happy for Luca. He was besides me when I got my most significant wins, and I hope that if I can get another great success, he may be there again. He had displayed an excellent condition both at Hamburg and today, and I hope he can maitain this his form at the Olympics too". As to his own form, the man from the California district of the Tuscan town of Cecina added that "At the Tour we had our share of highs and lows. But I worked hard to get into the same condition I had the past August. And I think that today I have showed that I got it. My most immediate target is the Klasika San Sebastian and ... the Olympics? Well, let's just wait and see ..."
Also Italy's National Team Coach Franco Ballerini was satisfied with Bettini's performance, and not just Bettini's: "One of the main protagonists of the professional cycling scene over the last years has won today. But as for the Olympic Team being built around him, I already said that the Olympic Road Race is in a league of its own, it's too hectic and with too few riders in each roster for one team to be able to control it. Surely Bettini is a rider we should work for. But today I was pleased also with Moreni's performance. As well as Pozzato's: don't be deceived by the fact he got dropped; he's a young rider, and it takes some time for him to recover from the efforts he did in his excellent Tour". Ballerini even spoke of the possible candidates to wear a maglia azzurra at the Verona Worlds, and named some names, from Danilo Di Luca, who did well today, to the same Emanuele Sella, to Dario David Cioni, whose work, in Ballero's own words, might be very useful to the Squadra come the Third of October.
55th GP Cittá di Camaiore - Results:
1. Paolo Bettini (Ita - Quick Step-Davitamon) - 04h25'56" (43.7 kph)
2. Danilo Di Luca (Ita - Saeco) - at 10"
3. Luca Paolini (Ita - Quick Step-Davitamon) - s.t.
4. Franck Schleck (Lux - Team CSC) - s.t.
5. Antonio D'Aniello (Ita - Miche) - s.t.
6. Massimo Giunti (Ita - Domina Vacanze) - s.t.
7. Pasquale Muto (Ita - Miche) - s.t.
8. Massimiliano Gentili (Ita - Domina Vacanze) - s.t.
9. Paolo Bossoni (Ita - Lampre) - s.t.
10. Przemyslaw Niemec (Pol - Miche) - s.t.
11. Gabriele Missaglia (Ita - T.Barloworld-Androni Giocattoli) - s.t.
12. Bo Hamburger (Den - Acqua & Sapone-Caffé Mokambo) - s.t.
13. Luca Mazzanti (Ita - Panaria-Margres) - s.t.
14. Alexandr Kolobnev (Rus - Domina Vacanze) - s.t.
15. Francesco Casagrande (Ita - Lampre) - s.t.
16. Tiaan Kannemeyer (RSA - T.Barloworld-Androni Giocattoli) - s.t.
17. Oscar Pozzi (Ita - Tenax) - s.t.
18. Gianni Faresin (Ita - Gerolsteiner) - s.t.
19. Luis Felipe Laverde Jiménez (Col - Formaggi Pinzolo Fiavé) - s.t.
20. Timothy Jones (Zim - Domina Vacanze) - s.t.
21. Volodymir Gustov (Ukr - Fassa Bortolo) - s.t.
22. Filippo Simeoni (Ita - Domina Vacanze) - s.t.
23. Michele Scotto D'Abusco (Ita - Lampre) - s.t.
24. Igor Pugaci (Mol - De Nardi) - s.t.
25. Damiano Cunego (Ita - Saeco) - s.t.
26. Gilberto Simoni (Ita - Saeco) - s.t.
27. Ivan Fanelli (Ita - Amore & Vita-Beretta) - at 45"
28. Matteo Tosatto (Ita - Fassa Bortolo) - s.t.
29. Cristian Moreni (Ita - Alessio-Bianchi) - s.t.
30. Marco Serpellini (Ita - Gerolsteiner) - s.t.
31. Peter Luttenberger (Aut - Team CSC) - s.t.
32. Fortunato Baliani (Ita - Panaria-Margres) - s.t.
33. Matteo Cappé (Ita - Formaggi Pinzolo Fiavé) - s.t.
34. Maurizio Carta (Ita - Miche) - s.t.
35. Ruggero Borghi (Ita - De Nardi) - s.t.
36. Giancarlo Ginestri (Ita - Tenax) - s.t.
37. Scott Davis (Aus - Panaria-Margres) - s.t.
38. Leonardo Giordani (Ita - De Nardi) - s.t.
39. Jamie Burrow (GBR - Amore & Vita-Beretta) - s.t.
40. Leonardo Bertagnolli (Ita - Saeco) - s.t.
41. Mirko Celestino (Ita - Saeco) - at 01'20"
42. Massimo Iannetti (Ita - Domina Vacanze) - at 03'00"
43. Raimondas Rumsas (Lit - Acqua & Sapone-Caffé Mokambo) - s.t.
44. Gianluca Tonetti (Ita - Tenax) - s.t.
45. Leonardo Scarselli (Ita - Colombia-Selle Italia) - s.t.
46. Marlon A. Pérez Arango (Col - Colombia-Selle Italia) - s.t.
47. Valery Kobzarenko (Ukr - Acqua & Sapone-Caffé Mokambo) - s.t.
48. Sergio Barbero (Ita - Lampre) - s.t.
49. Filippo Pozzato (Ita - Fassa Bortolo) - s.t.
50. James Lewis Perry (RSA - T.Barloworld-Androni Giocattoli) - s.t.
51. Manuel Calvente Gorbas (Spa - Team CSC) - s.t.
52. Andrea Rossi (Ita - De Nardi) - s.t.
53. Nicki Sørensen (Den - Team CSC) - s.t.
54. Alexandre Bazhenov (Rus - Domina Vacanze) - s.t.
55. Giuliano Figueras (Ita - Panaria-Margres) - s.t.
56. Andrea Peron (Ita - Team CSC) - s.t.
57. Devis Miorin (Ita - De Nardi) - s.t.
58. Darren Lill (RSA - T.Barloworld-Androni Giocattoli) - s.t.
59. Domenico Passuello (Ita - Amore & Vita-Beretta) - s.t.
60. Cristiano Frattini (Ita - Tenax) - s.t.
61. Daniele Pietropolli (Ita - Tenax) - s.t.
62. Raffaele Illiano (Ita - Colombia-Selle Italia) - s.t.
63. Emanuele Sella (Ita - Panaria-Margres) - s.t.
64. Ruggero Marzoli (Ita - Acqua & Sapone-Caffé Mokambo) - s.t.
65. Laurent Dufaux (Swi - Quick.Step-Davitamon) - s.t.
66. Balazs Rohtmer (Hun - Miche) - s.t.
67. Gabriele Bosisio (Ita - Tenax) - s.t.
68. Kristjan Fajt (Slo - Tenax) - s.t.
69. Vladimir Miholjevic (Cro - Alessio-Bianchi) - s.t.
70. Pietro Caucchioli (Ita - Alessio-Bianchi) - s.t.
71. Raffaele Ferrara (Ita - Alessio-Bianchi) - s.t.
72. Franco Pellizzotti (Ita - Alessio-Bianchi) - s.t.
73. Sean Sullivan (Aus - T.Barloworld-Androni Giocattoli) - s.t.
74. Ryan Cox (RSA - T.Barloworld-Androni Giocattoli) - s.t.
75. Marcel Strauss (Swi - Gerolsteiner) - s.t.
76. Stefano Ciuffi (Ita - Amore & Vita-Beretta) - s.t.
77. Fabio Borghesi (Ita - Miche) - s.t.
78. Aliaksandr Kuschynski (Blr - Amore & Vita-Beretta) - s.t.