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News feature, March 6, 2007
Pozzato becomes Northern Classics contender
Italian Filippo 'Pippo' Pozzato (Liquigas) grabbed another big one last Saturday in Lokeren by winning the 62nd Omloop Het Volk, adding to a palmarès that includes a Tour de France stage, the HEW-Cyclassics and last year's Milano-Sanremo. The victory proved his worth on Belgian soil and will surely put his name at the top of the list of contenders for April's Ronde Van Vlaanderen. Cyclingnews' Gregor Brown caught up with the Italian in Kuurne to learn more.
Not as big as his 2006 Sanremo win, taken on home soil and the stuff of every Italian's dreams, the Omloop Het Volk helped to build Pozzato's status as a one-day rider, and especially as a rider for the Northern Classics. His tactics in the closing kilometres of Saturday's race were brilliant, not often found in a young rider, but then again, Pippo has been professional since 2000.
The last kilometre of Het Volk was a pure test of will and patience. There were two men up front, Spaniard Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank) and Aussie Stuart O'Grady (Team CSC), and Pippo was sitting in a group of four with Belgians Tom Boonen (Quickstep-Innergetic), Nick Nuyens (Cofidis) and Aussie Baden Cooke (Unibet.com). When Cooke faded, Nuyens launched, and instead of immediately following Pippo waited behind to let the Belgian rivalry play out.
"The last two kilometres I thought we could pull them in [Flecha and O'Grady] but before that I did not think we had a chance," Pippo said. "Also they were tired, there was a lot of headwind, so, they were feeling the pain, like us."
Boonen, a former teammate, was forced to come through and chase after his compatriot Nuyens, another former teammate, attacked. He did so because the race is important but also because he could not afford to gamble in a home race, in front of Belgian media and fans.
"I knew that Nuyens would take off, and then he went so I waited for Boonen to go," the 25 year-old continued in his Veneto accent. (He recently has moved to Monte Carlo, the same area as Boonen and Paolo Bettini.) It worked. Boonen put his head down and started motoring, and when the juncture was almost made Pippo jumped the former world champion and bridged the gap. "Yes. [Laughs.] Exactly," he quipped. "I knew that those two had to do something to try their luck at winning."
Team Director Sportif Mario Scirea backed up his star rider's performance as he rallied his troops to avoid missing the sign-in before the start of Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne. The day before, in Gent, Pozzato and Manuel Quinziato missed the official sign-in and the team was fined for it. "Yes, I don't know how many Swiss Francs we were fined," said the tall Italian, former lead-out man of Mario Cipollini. "In the end it did not matter because we delivered a victory."
Scirea has learned a lot in his years of super-domestique service, and now has the opportunity to pass on his knowledge to the younger riders in his ranks. He was happy to have Pippo come across from Boonen's Quick-Step team this past winter and rejoin an Italian team. The two Italians, along with Team Manager Roberto Amadio, are pleased with their new signing and are happy to see him so successful early on in the season.
But Scirea let Pozzato ride his own race in the last kilometres, choosing not to tell him what to do. He was impressed how Pozzato played off the Belgian rivalry. "Yes. He did very well," he noted of his rider's calculations. "I did not talk much over the two-way radio to him in the finale. I told him early on that 'we believe your chances' and that we would allow him to play his cards to the end."
He explained, "Up front we saw that O'Grady had to take over and pull all the way to the end because he wanted to arrive in a sprint; because he is stronger than Flecha. He [Pozzato] took a calculated risk but it was very intelligent. Also, Boonen played his cards when Nuyens first attacked - he hesitated and watched Pippo, but if he did not chase then it would have only been those three [Nuyens, O'Grady and Flecha] to vie for victory."
That handful of seconds that ticked by seemed like a lifetime as Pozzato waited for Boonen to react, and he did. Near 800 metres to go, Boonen started chasing and Pozzato held on as the race neared its gripping finale. "The race is lost on the line, not at 700 metres to the line," Scirea wisely noted. "Pozzato kept playing his cards and it arrived that way."
The mood was relaxed in Kuurne, after winning the day before, the Liquigas team was still on a high. "Today is another great race. We are not here to fill out the peloton; even though we just won yesterday we will try something today." Pozzato enjoyed the early part of the race but then retired with 20 kilometres to go. He will use the following weeks to focus and prepare for the Milano-Sanremo. Last year he won La Classicissima while racing in the Quickstep colours, with the very same men he had to outmaneuver to win in Lokeren.
After besting the Belgians on their home turf, Pozzato might find himself a marked man in his own country when the time comes in Sanremo, but he hopes to repeat last year's performance. "Maybe it won't be so easy," Pippo concluded. "I will be the Italian there, but I will go there with intentions of winning. It will be difficult but it was very important that I won yesterday.