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An interview with Alessandro Ballan, March 16, 2008
Focusing for Roubaix
After his dazzling World Championship victory in Varese last year, Alessandro Ballan has his work cut out coming up with something equally impressive for 2009. The Italian finds time in his busy schedule to tell Procycling's Manolo Bertocchi what he has up his multi-coloured sleeves…
Alessandro Ballan carries a heavy weight throughout the 2009 season – the title of UCI World Road Champion. While many have found the rainbow coloured jersey a curse in the year after their worlds win, Ballan is hoping to leverage its credibility and his form to boost his profile throughout the year.
The Italian's initial focus for the season is next month's Paris-Roubaix. While Ballan's Grand Tour plans are yet to be formalized, Ballan plans on arriving in Roubaix velodrome alone this year, having finished third in last year's three man sprint.
Procycling: Last year was a big year for you, culminating in that win at the road race championships in Varese, Italy in September. How do you plan to follow that up in 2009?
Alessandro Ballan: My objectives for this season will be more difficult to achieve, I think. Because I'm now wearing the rainbow jersey, I'll be more heavily marked by the other teams, especially towards the end of each race. But winning the rainbow jersey has had a lot of positive effects, too. For starters, it has given me a greater awareness of my full strength and capabilities.
The first main objective on my race calendar is Paris-Roubaix. I'm hoping that, with the mental strength the win in Varese has given me, I stand a chance of winning at Roubaix. Otherwise, a lot of my aims will be the same as in previous years: getting the season off to a good start at Sanremo, riding well at the Tour of Flanders, then focusing on the Vuelta and the Worlds at the tail-end of the year.
Procycling: If you had to pick one race above all others that you'd love to win this year, what would it be – and why?
AB: My choice would definitely be Roubaix. Over the years, few riders have been able to win it while wearing the rainbow jersey. The last rider to do it was Tom Boonen. I'd love to do it too! Roubaix represents the essence of cycling, and winning it means becoming part of its history.
Procycling: So what has life been like since you won the rainbow jersey?
AB: Things have changed a lot for me – in more ways than just my racing.
First of all, winning the Worlds has meant that I was very busy over the winter, and that hasn't really helped my preparation. I've had to deal with a lot of stress, especially at a mental level. Instead of spending the usual month relaxing in the sun with my family, I've had to participate in many publicity events, ranging from dinners to interviews, and appearing on TV shows.
But at the end of the day it's very satisfying. It means that people now recognise my face. I get a lot of compliments for what I did.
Procycling: On the subject of your Worlds title… There has long been talk about "the curse of the rainbow jersey". Are you worried about that?
AB: Not at all. The last few world champions – riders like Oscar Freire, Tom Boonen and Paolo Bettini – have shown that it's possible to win the rainbow jersey, and then go on to have a very good season the following year. I'm not a fast rider like them, but I always win a few races over the course of the season.
That's what I hope to do this year too.
Procycling: Have you watched the race in Varese at all since that day? If so, what were your thoughts about it?
AB: Yes, I have. In fact, I was watching the last three kilometres of the race just yesterday. The first thing I thought was that, when I was actually racing, I didn't realise that the break lasted for such a long time. At that moment I was so focused that the time passed incredibly quickly. Watching the footage now makes me realise how long it was!
Procycling: How much has your win raised your profile in Italy and in the rest of the world?
AB: Here in Venice, everybody now recognises me. I've also become a lot more well known among cycling fans worldwide. But I'm sure I won't fully realise how much it has raised my profile until I go to Belgium in the spring, for the Classics.
Procycling: Varese was a memorable day not just for your win, but because it was Paolo Bettini's farewell race. What are your memories of "Il Grillo" that day?
AB: I remember everything. Paolo and I spoke a lot, both before and during the race. But the moment I'll never forget happened the night before, when he announced to me the fact that he was going to retire. Honestly, I tried not to cry during the prize ceremony at the Worlds, but I couldn't stop myself the night before.
He told me the news with a bit of regret, and he was touched at my reaction. In my opinion, he's one of the greatest champions we've ever seen – in every respect. I think he could have continued racing at a high level for another two or three seasons.
Procycling: You came third at Roubaix last year, but finished together with Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara in the velodrome. Looking back, do you think there was any way you could have won that day? And what will it take for you to win Paris-Roubaix this year?
AB: Yes, I could! I was there thinking, "Hey, I'm here with two world champions!" but I tried to stay as calm as possible. In the end, I came third. But I'm sure I could have found a way to come through that day. Certainly not in the sprint – in that respect, Boonen is unbeatable. The only way I could have won would have been by attacking with about five kilometres to go.
My strategy for this year will be to stay at the front 'till Arenberg, keep an eye on the best riders, and then attack if possible – especially if Tom is going to be in the final group.
Procycling: You're from the Venice and this year, the Giro d'Italia starts in the city. What's the likelihood that we'll see the rainbow jersey on the streets of your hometown on May 9?
AB: I've talked to my team bosses, and we've decided that we'll get to together and make some decisions about my race programme after Roubaix. If I still have enough energy, I'll race Giro del Trentino at the end of April. While I'm there, I'll decide whether or not I'm going ride the Giro d'Italia.
Procycling: If you do decide to ride the Giro, will your focus be on stage wins? And is there a chance you'll decide to ride the Tour de France as well?
AB: Yes. The goal will be to win some stages. I'd particularly love to win the five stages that take place in my home province of Veneto. But there may be some chances all the way through the Giro. After the first week, the riders who are in contention for the general classification will have their minds on other things, so there could be space to attack.
What I can say for sure, though, is that if I do decide to ride the Giro, I won't be riding the Tour, and vice versa.
Procycling: By taking a stage win at last year's Vuelta a España, you've demonstrated that you're much more than just a Classics specialist. Did you surprise yourself by taking that victory in the Pyrenees?
AB: I found myself in a situation I'd never been in before. I'd lost three kilograms on my usual weight, which I think helped me in the mountains. Now that I know I can succeed in those stages, I want to focus on Vuelta again this year, so that I can go for another win.
Procycling: Do you have any greater ambitions of going for the overall titles at the major tours, or will your focus remain on taking stage wins?
AB: No. I'm going to stick to aiming for stage wins. My main strength is that I'm very good in long, hard single-day races. I don't think it's worth trying to change that now.
Procycling: Obviously, with you as reigning world champion and Paolo Bettini now retired, will you be demanding a captain's role at the Worlds this September in Mendrisio, Switzerland?
AB: Yes, that's going to be one of my main objectives.
Procycling: Do you think that the course there will suit you?
AB: I was always told that a rider who wins Flanders can win any race. I think that's true. You know, a race that's ridden over 27 pavé sectors is quite a tough selection process. Very few riders are capable of winning a race like that. Once you've done it, you can go on to do anything.
Procycling: Danilo Di Luca and Damiano Cunego both think they're due their chance at this year's Worlds. What would you say to them?
AB: [Italian national team boss] Franco Ballerini will decide the team. It will probably have three captains: me, Danilo and Damiano. But of course, it all depends on how fit each of us is by the time the Worlds come around.
Procycling: Would you say that your success has made you more ambitious?
AB: Yes. I've become more aware of what I can do. You always need to have new goals as a rider, otherwise you enter races just to participate, and that's not what I want to do. I want to take a lot of wins while I'm wearing the rainbow jersey.
Procycling: With that ambition can come frustration. Is there anything that makes you particularly angry?
AB: I'm generally quite a calm person, but one thing that really gets on my nerves is when people make up lies about me – that's something that's happened to me a lot more since I've become world champion.
Another thing that makes me angry is when I'm not able to give 100 per cent during a race, and I miss out on the win.
Procycling: When was the last time you were annoyed at missing out on a win which you feel you really ought to have taken?
AB: When I came third in a Tour stage last year [stage 11 from Lannemezan to Foix, won by CSC's Kurt-Asle Arvesen with Ag2r's Martin Elmiger in second].
Procycling: While we're on the subject of disappointment… In your early career, you almost missed out on a pro contract. Do you worry that, with so many riders unemployed at the moment, and so many amateurs unable to break through, a lot of potentially excellent riders won't ever get their chance?
AB: The problem for many young riders is that there's not enough decent talent scouting. Pro team managers are really busy, so they often don't get to follow young riders and amateur racing as closely as they might. Often, choices are made solely on the basis of the quantity of wins, so for a rider like me, who might only win few races, but who still has plenty of good results throughout the year, it's even harder to be discovered.
And now, with the credit crunch, teams are under even greater financial pressure, so there are even fewer chances. The system needs to be rethought. Satellite teams might be a good option, providing the pro squads with weekly status reports. The present system doesn't allow team managers to see the real strengths of a rider, or to understand his true potential.
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Images by Roberto Bettini/www.bettiniphoto.net
Images by Riccardo Scanferla
Images by AFP