By Tim Maloney, Cyclingnews European editor
It was a snowy Saturday moring in Sassuolo, Italy at the foot of the Apennine Mountains near Modena when Cyclingnews.com paid a visit to the team launch of Panaria-Fiordo for 2002. Presented in a quaint theatre that recalled Cinema Paradiso, Panaria-Fiordo '02 is a small team with big possibilities. It's small in budget, since the squad is funded by Italian high-end floor tile makers Panaria and Fiordo, not a huge transnational conglomerate.
In fact, the Mussini family has collaborated with team manager Bruno Reverberi since 2000 to field an ever more competitive TT2 team. Adjectives like 'dynamic' and 'effervescent' describe this coming team, while RAI TV commentator Davide Cassani told Cyclingnews that "Bruno Reverberi is known for his smart teams and this one looks like his best yet."
Fourteen riders make up Panaria-Fiordo '02. Only 26 years old, team captain Giuliano Figueras was certainly the comeback rider in Italian cycling last season. Figueras was '96 U23 World Champ and turned pro in '98 with Mapei, but the talented, temperamental Neopolitan got lost in the sauce at mega-Mapei. Salvaged from the oblivion by Bruno Reverberi, Figueras rode well all last spring, capping it off with 10th in the Giro. Figueras had a huge win in the Giro del Veneto in front of Di Luca, Rebellin and Casagrande, then did the Vuelta for training after being selected for the squadra azzurro in Lisbon. Figueras had an excellent worlds; 7th in the men's pro race and matching the best climbers all day. Disappointed at being beaten narrowly into second in the season closing classic Giro di Lombardia by his arch-rival Danilo DiLuca, Figueras is confident for 2002.
Currently 25th in the UCI pro rankings, Figueras told Cyclingnews that, "I'm already ahead of last year in my preparation, but you never know… you might just end up going slow in the races. I'll see how I'm going in Tirreno-Adriatico but I don't want to say anything about Milano-San Remo since I might jinx it!"
Figureras will point towards the Ardennes classics and the Giro d'Italia as his other main objectives in '02. "I'm out to win as much as possible this season."
Former Italian team coach Alfredo Martini told Cyclingnews that, "Figueras is a real racer; a rider with a lot of class who showed us last year he could be one of the top riders in the world." (Look for a one-on-one interview on Cyclingnews with Giuliano Figueras later in February.)
Mexican Julio Perez (he wants to lose Cuapio) is only 24, but last year the explosive climber from Tlaxcala, Mexico showed why he's one of the best in the world when the road heads up the mountain. After an unlucky crash face planted the speedy Mexican in Stage 7 of last year's Giro and busted his teeth, Perez came back to win the toughest climbing stage of the Italian tour on Stage 11 to Pordoi, besting eventual race winner Gilberto Simoni.
Perez lacks experience, since he's only been racing a few years. "Perez is one of the best climbers in the world," said directeur sportif Roberto Reverberi. "We are trying to teach him how to race and he's learning; improving his descending skills and when to attack… not too far from the finish!" Perez will be seeking to win stages in the Giro and other races where is spectacular climbing skills can be used to best effect.
Besides talented Australians cronoman Nathan O'Neill and sprinter Graeme Brown, Panaria-Fiordo '02 features Italian speedsters Enrico Degano, Nicola Chesini, Ukranian all-round talent Volodmyir Duma looking for a breakthrough year, with his powerful countryman Sergiy Matveyev looking for the form that almost brought him victory in last year's Circuit des Mines before a terrible crash put him out of the race. And talents like Russian climber Faat Zakirov and Belaran Eugeni Seniushkin will be seeking to show that they are pros with a future.
Team Panaria-Fiordo is a refreshing contrast to the TT1 mega-squads that have huge team budgets and inflated rosters. With a small budget but interesting riders like Figueras, Perez and Co., look for the orange clad Panaria-Fiordo men to provide lots of bang for the buck in 2002.
2002 Panaria-Fiordo Roster
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