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Worlds Preview: The Azzurri Storm
“Bettini and Pozzato will be our men. We are looking for the highest result and we’ve got the right men and the right concentration to get it. I think it will be a very difficult race…” So said Italian national team coach Franco Ballerini to Gazzetta dello Sport last week. But his team is stacked with leaders…and that strategy has backfired in the past…

Traditionally the Italian National Team is considered one of the few that can lead the World’s race and shape it. That is partially true nowadays because in the last ten years the Spanish Team became the lead team for the World’s, but this year everybody will look to the red and yellow jersey of Mr. “Rainbow” Oscar Freire.

Franco Ballerini, the Italian national team coach is fully aware of the Spanish strengths, and knows that his tactics will influence the whole race as well as the Spanish rider influencing his own. “On this kind of route Freire is much too strong. We must keep the race from the start and try to make it selective. We will work with small groups, better couples in order to be always inside a break.”he told Gazzetta.

Last week Ballerini declared the official National Team for the World’s 2007 which will take place in Stuttgard, Germany. Reading the names it’s immediately clear that “La Squadra” this year is first of all a selection of great names. Bettini, Di Luca, Pozzato, Ballan, Cunego and Rebellin are people that already won Pro Tour races and they would be the leader of a team in a different race.

Too Many Chiefs?
The list reads more like the ‘best of Italian cycling’ than a road team built around two riders: Danilo Di Luca, Marzio Bruseghin, Giovanni Visconti, Andrea Tonti, Alessandro Bertolini, Damiano Cunego, Alessandro Ballan, Matteo Tossato, Filippo Pozzato, Paolo Bettini, Luca Mazzanti, Vicenzo Nibali, and Davide Rebellin.

All that horsepower may be both a blessing and a curse… this, Ballerini also knows too well. In the 2001, during his first experience as coach of the Italian National Team, during the World’s in Lisbon he sat on the hot seat for the whole race. There was Bettini catching Di Luca in a break, Simoni attacking and Lanfranchi pursuing, Bartoli didn’t help Bettini during the final sprint. A lot of polemics for many weeks following the race.

But Ballerini learned after that experience to build the team around just one captain. Cipollini in the 2002 was the only leader, as Petacchi in the 2005 or Bettini for the other experiences. “I didn’t choose just athletes but first of all men. In Stuttgard the Italians will be a Team, that means that everybody is called to work for the group.”

But, year by year, Ballerini went back to his first idea: a Team of leaders. Last year Bettini was the captain but also Pozzato and Rebellin found their good moments during the race. An examination of his choices can help understand what kind of race can come from Ballerini’s cap.

Tonti, Visconti, Nibali, Bruseghin and Bertolini for the dirty work (two of them will be just spare for the race day; probably the young Nibali and Visconti). Tonti is Bettini’s guy, Bruseghin is a strong worker, with very strong pace; he will be very useful during the first phase when the Team will need to control the early breaks, Bertolini is an experienced rider who discovered during this summer he could also win, taking top honours in a number of small summer races in Italy during August.

Then the “names”. No need any comment Bettini – he can win form so may different places. He also just commented to the Gazzetta dello Sport that: “I will be the same Bettini as always. Ready to work with the group and the first to work for the others if I do not feel well.” Then talking about how the team will (or won’t) unite on the coming days, he said: “We must be a group. The group is something that you build day by day. Working together, during the evenings, the dinners. At last we must be all ready to sacrifice ourselves for the azzure jersey that we will wear that day.”

Pozzato will be probably the first choice for a sprint. This summer he won a bunch sprint at Tour de France against the best, but he’s also a good poker player. Do you remember how he won the Milano-Sanremo in the 2006? I still don’t understand if he won a sprint or alone…

Coming to Di Luca he is the actual leader of the Pro Tour and he will have, together with Ballan, the duty to force the race in the second half promoting an important attack (or following one). Rebellin will be the director on the road. He will be on Bettini’s wheel controlling and thinking. Maybe attacking too as he did last year at 5 km to the finish.

At last the big question mark named Damiano Cunego. Everybody was convinced that Bennati had to cover his place but Ballerini chose Damiano. What can Cunego do for this team? Many doubt about his attitude to work for someone else. Others doubt about his actual condition. But Ballerini stands by his choice: “I’m very confident in Cunego. The “sky jersey” will change him. He will make a great performance during the race.”

This will be the Italian Team: aggressive and with many different solutions. Ballerini knows very well that, on paper, the Spanish and the Germans can wait for the final sprint because Freire and Zabel will be ready for it. Bettini also can sprint but he needs a fast race with a lot of selection.

Alessandro Ballan isn’t a designated leader, but his skills could be well used in any number of places.

This is Ballerini’s thinking while the tifosi start to quarrel about his choices. But this is Italy; he knows the tifosi and is aware that unless Italy wins, any choice will be considered right or wrong as soon as the finish line is crossed.


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