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An interview with Alessandro Ballan, April 7, 2007
Back to winning form
Ballan is Ronde-ready
Fresh off a win in Three Days of De Panne, Alessandro Ballan is a marked man for Sunday's Ronde van Vlaanderen. The tall Italian has finished fifth and sixth in the past, and this year looks to be ready for something more. Gregor Brown of Cyclingnews spoke with Ballan in Kortrijk before the running of Belgium's biggest race to find out what the fans can expect to see.
"Now after the win I have more confidence," said Ballan as we sat down in the Kennedy Hotel lobby. The 27 year-old rider from Castelfranco Veneto had just won the overall classification of De Panne the day before thanks to a second place in the first stage, and a solid time trial on the final stage where he claimed the overall lead.
The win was a much needed boost for Ballan, whose confidence took a hit when he crashed in the GP Chiasso at the beginning of February. After spending a few days off the bike and he was forced to slowly rebuild his winning form. "I had problems before Tirreno-Adriatico, after the crash in Chiasso. Even for me it was hard to believe that I would arrive in this condition. Yesterday, I had the confirmation that I really have good form."
It was in the 2005 edition of De Panne where Ballan marked the first victory in his palmarès; he won the first stage that year as well, but fell just short of the overall. "It was my first win as a professional. I don't remember if there was rain or not but I recall the great escape with Stijn Devolder. We came to the line and I was able to take the sprint but then he went on to win the overall in the final time trial."
This year the roles were changed when Ballan, like Devolder before, came in and swiped the leader's jersey off the shoulders of Luca Paolini in the final time trial. "Yeah, in 2005 I had the jersey up until the last stage, when he took it by six seconds.
"I hope this allows me to be a protagonist also on Sunday," he modestly continued. Sunday is the 259-kilometre Ronde; the race is littered with 18 short and sharp climbs, perfect for a power-man like Ballan. "Today we went to see the climbs. We did the Oude Kwaremont, Paterberg and a couple other climbs, plus the small changes the organisers made to the course from last year's edition. We took a look at the zones where we think the selection will be made."
The sun's rays softly landed on the Lampre-Fondital rider through the lobby's curtains. Outside Belgium was enjoying another day in one of its nicest springs in recent history. "I would say for us racers it is always better with these types of temperature [around 15°C - ed.]. Rain on the pavé always becomes dangerous. I can go well in the rain but I have not raced so often on the cobbles, so it is better for me that it will be dry. The race will be fast."
Ballan's best mate and strong ally, Daniele Bennati, will be the other side of Lampre's double-edged blade on Sunday. Bennati is coming on form after having an intestinal virus, getting back to his winning ways in stage 2 of De Panne, and Ballan hopes that his presence will help swing the balance of the race in their favour.
"The race will be good in this way. Bennati is faster than me so if he makes it into the finale then we have another card to play. The more of us there are the better it will be against Quickstep We will have to see how it goes after the first danger zones... after the Kwaremont. We need to have the largest number of riders possible up front at this point to battle Tom Boonen and his Quickstep team. We will be able to anticipate Boonen, or if it arrives in a sprint then that is also fine."
Supporting Boonen, a two-time Ronde winner, is World Champion Paolo Bettini. Ballan thinks that the Italian will first have to answer to Boonen but that he can not be counted out as a danger-man. "Bettini is going really well, you saw him go well at Harelbeke [E3 Prijs], even if he broke his bike. Certainly he will be there to help out Boonen but we will not exclude him as a protagonist.
"If I am there with Boonen in the finale then that means I did a good race," said Ballan, pondering a scenario posed by Cyclingnews, in which the two are alone in the closing moments. "He goes very quickly in the sprint, obliviously, so I would have to try to play my cards beforehand. We saw last year at Roubaix that he can have his bad moments. I will not lose my hope and I will stay up there to try to win.
While Ballan's form is coming good at last, it is a bit shy of where he was this time one year ago. "Last year I lost a little bit of time in the first day of De Panne so I raced without the pressure of trying to win the overall classification," said Ballan. "That way I was able to relax a bit and focus on Flanders. I finished second in Harelbeke and so my condition was very good.
"With respect to last year I am lacking something but not much. What ever I am missing is from the days of stop that I had right before Tirreno. The others were racing and I was forced to stop, causing me to lose a little bit of rhythm. I don't have any more pains and I think that now I am becoming better day by day, with every race. I hope that by Sunday I will be 100 percent." And if not this Sunday? "Then there is Roubaix! [Laughs - ed.]"
If simply racing wasn't inspiration enough, Ballan can draw from another source to gain that little bit of edge he'll need on the tough, cobbled bergs in Flanders - knowing a certain fan will be watching for the flashes of blue and pink on Sunday. "Stella, is my daughter and she is now one and a half years old. She and my wife will be watching me on TV from Italy."