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Italian National Championships - CN
Saltara, Italy, June 24-29, 2003
By Robert Piorno at the Italian National Championships, translated by Martin Hardie
There was a time in which the honour and pride of national flags created passion in the races of Europe. A heraldic culture had sunk deep roots in cycling's collective unconsciousness and the heroes of the pedal beat a frantic rhythm to the tune of their national anthem. Then cycling was a sport that bore a strong national character and consequently it was a great deal more heterogeneous; a cycle culture for each nation; a philosophy, an idiosyncrasy...Similarly the flags rippled proud and the backs of the heroes of the road maintained with pride the weight of their commitment; the responsibility to charge to slopes with the emblem of their country and to exercise with loyal diligence the role of loyal ambassadors of the land to which they had been born.
These were the times of the national selections, which are nowadays destined to the annals of the exploits of cycling of old. Since the raid of the commercial houses into the sport of the pedal, this "patriotic" cycling has remained relegated to a discrete corner of the memory and of the calendar, the World Championships.
Nevertheless, even today, each year one fortunate rider enjoys the anachronistic privilege of acting as the official ambassador of such nostalgia. A chosen one destined to display before half the world the national heraldry of his ancestors. One who is permitted to wear the national flag for 365 days. A wink to the old times, a jersey of an extinct philosophy of cycling. The National Championship is the last bastion of cycling of long ago, a unique test with prestige far beyond the quality of the contenders and because of that, it has a heritage of cycling that cannot be renounced.
If there is a nation in which the national championships have acquired gigantic dimensions and incomparable prestige, it is Italy. It is not by chance that it was in the transalpino country that from 1906, the model of the national championships competition grew; the history and the tradition of the Italian National Championship sank its roots into the genesis of cycling itself. The Italian Championship is a Classic in all respects and this year the 93rd edition shall be disputed and it possesses the same brilliance as those monumental tests of the calibre of Milan-San Remo, Paris Roubaix or Liege-Bastione-Leige.
The remaining traditional cycling nations only later came to copy the model of competition that in Italy had already enjoyed a glorious historic tradition. Curiously the first country to reproduce the model of the Italian National Championship was Luxembourg in 1922. The other large nations, Belgium, Holland, France, Germany, Spain and Switzerland, were not to introduce the national championships into their respective calendars until the 1940's, and then in the image and the resemblance of the Italian test.
Thus while in Italy the national championship is and has always been one of the most coveted pearls of champions of all epochs, in the other cycling nations, although it is a test of unquestionable prestige, the national championship has not been held in the same regard. Perhaps only in Belgium, in spite of it not being a strictly indigenous test, has a championship acquired a similar significance, thanks to the spectacular battles fought by the golden generation of the Belgian cycling in the 1970's. In Italy to gain the national championship is almost indispensable requirement in order to be able to swell the Mount Olympus of the greats. There is no champion who can be permitted the luxury of not adorning his palmares with a maglia tricolore.
The Italian National Championship, solely interrupted in 1943, is a unique race, with its own personality even within the general context of the national championships of other nations. The test has been elevated to the official jewel in the crown, a showcase and premier of 20th century Italian cycling culture, a race that is alive like few others, a permanent tribute to one of the most fruitful heritages of the world in a way that one day races speak. Italy is the nation par excellence of one day cycling, quantitatively speaking, and qualitatively Belgium alone can be situated at a similar level. The Italian championship is the tangible example of that tradition. Not only because it is the zenith of that tendency, but because it also binds together all of the historical Italian calendar within its annals.
In effect all of the classics and the semi classics of the country have been on at least one occasion validated through their dispute of the maglia tricolore. All of the Classica Italiana boasts the privilege, at some occasion, of enjoying the distribution of the medals of the national championships.
The Italian championship has passed by all of these tests to make them great, and in making them great it is at the same time a reflection of the tradition and a tribute to the Italian classics and semi-classics. Thus the Coppa Agostoni, the Giro del Appennino, the Copa Bernocchi, the G.P de Camaiore, the Giro de Campania, the Giro del Friuli, the G.P de Larciano, the mythical Giro del Lazio, the Trofeo Matteotti, the Trofeo Melinda, the Milano-Vignola, the Coppa Placci, the G.P de Prato, the Giro de la Provincia de Reggio Calabria, the Giro de Romagna, the Giro de Toscana, the Tres Valles Varesini and the Giro del Veneto have hosted on at least one occasion the maglia tricolore.
This model of fusion for the championships with the historic classics of the calendar was a constant in Italy until 1998, the moment when the "mundialista" model was imposed; the concentration within the one week of all the national championships, in all the categories, with a variable circuit that is covered the number of times necessary in order to achieve a length that oscillates between approximately 230 and 255 kilometres.
The palmares of the Italian Championships of the road are dominated by the five great Italian cycling myths of old: Girardengo is unquestionably the dominator with nine triumphs, followed by Learco Guerra with five and then the three great mythical figures of Giro de Italia; Coppi, Bartali and Binda, all of them with four triumphs. Of the cyclists in active-duty today, only Salvatore Commesso appears twice in the palmares thanks to his triumphs in 1999 and 2002. 2003 will offer to only four cyclists the possibility of conquering their second tricolore: Faresin, Tafi, Bartoli and Nardello, the only Italian champions in active-duty along with the absentee Cipollini and dual champion Commesso.
The town of Saltara has been charged with succeeding Treviso, were Commesso was crowned Commesso Italian champion in 2002. Saltara is a small town located in the heart of the province of Pesaro-Urbino, in the valley of Metauro, in the region of Marche. It is a region with a minor cycling tradition, which at the present time has only four cyclists competing in the professional ranks: Massimo Giunti, Michele Scarponi and Lorenzo Cardellini (all of them enlisted in Cipollini's Domina Vacanze, as well as at a time its only professional team, Marchigiano) and the veteran Rodolfo Massi, who turned his last pedals as a professional in the ranks of Colombia-Selle Italia.
Marche is then light years away in many ways compared to other Italian regions; last year the Tuscan cyclists won a total of 40 victories for their region, Lombardy 38, whereas Marche gained only a partial triumph in the Settimana Lombarda thanks to the young Scarponi, illustrating the abysmal average between the this region and the rest. It is certain that Marche has never been the cradle of remarkable cyclists nor even a host of great races.
Today the only elite UCI races that are disputed in the region are the Due Giorni Marchigiana; a classification for points that are reflected in the results of the Trofeo Cittá di Castelfidardo and the Trofeo Fred Mengoni, in which last year Fabio Sacchi and Danilo Di Luca were the winners, and the G.P Civitanova Marche, a race that has sonly been run twice (in 2000 and 2001) and because of organisational problems was cancelled last year.
Other than these three races it is fitting to note that one of the emblematic races of the Italian calendar, Tirreno-Adriático, traditionally concludes in the Marchigiano locality of San Benedetto del Tronto. Nevertheless all of these races are held in the provinces of Macerata and Ascoli Piceno. All of which are to the south of Pesaro-Urbino. The cycling activity in this province is minimal and almost exclusively reduced to events organised by the Società Polisportiva A. Omicioli of Saltara, the organisers of the 2003 Italian National Road Race Championships.
Saltara will be in full fiesta mode on the 29th of June with the running of the queen race of the national championships, thanks to the persistence and dedication of the Società that culminates a dream caressed during long years of a distant relationship with cycling. A historical fiesta for a tiny locality, an island within Marche where they breathe a passion for cycling, and are already accustomed to hosting cycling competitions of a different level. Since 1932, events such as the national championships for alevínes (under 12's), juniors and military, as well as stages in the Giro delle Marche (U23 UCI cat. 2.6) have been held in the area.
The whole town has given body and soul to the business. No-one has crossed their arms and refused the historic opportunity to organise an event of such importance, but historical itself in the case of the local people, humble people, farmers, industrial workers that for a day, thanks to their tenacity will give Italian cycling its capital. It is a responsibility they have assumed to a very high degree, up until the last neighbour of Saltara has been implicated in one way or another in making into reality the dream, in putting into practice a project that was never seen as impossible. The enthusiasm has borne fruit and Saltara is the verification of how a project can be consolidated by and because of the real possibility of its people, like a dream forged in a small village bar, with playing cards and between beers, exercising a nostalgia for the glorious times of Coppi, of Gimondi, or Moser.
For the race, Saltara has designed a layout worthy of one of monuments of Italian cycling, worthy of one of the more genuine signs of identity and heritage of this sport and the Italian people. The area covered by the race includes the triangle Pesaro, Fano (host of the national time trial championships) and Urbino and is a permanent challenge to the horizontal. It is land suitable for cycling, in which there are relatively frequent local races. It climbs and descends continuously, narrow highways, irregular asphalt, demanding slopes that exceed 20% at times and an infinity of corners - straight lines are a utopia.
But the "political" requirements have prevented a circuit that leaves this suggestive orography (the study of the physical geography of mountains and mountain ranges: Martin). The layout is demanding, but it would have been an authentic and thorough Chinese torture to have fully expressed the potential of this area. Even so the proposal of the organizing society is an attractive invitation to the greats of transalpino cycling so that they are free to fight the battle of the prestige of this course. At the beginning of the year, the technical commissioner of the Italian squad, Franco Ballerini and shortly after the mythical ex-national selector, Alfredo Martini, reconnoitred the circuit and displayed their satisfaction, judging it a beautiful and selective route, both for its technical characteristics and in addition as an optimal proving ground in the face of this year's world championship in Hamilton.
The test will consist of 17 laps of a 14.2 km circuit, to complete a total of 241 km. The start will be located in the locality of Calcinelli, about two and a half kilometres from Saltara, the exact point at which begins the 5 km ascent that the riders will have to climb 17 times - altogether about 80 total kilometres of climbing. It is an irregular ascent without great slopes, hardly two ramps of about 200 metres each that go up at around 10% in gradient, the first at the beginning of the ascent and the second and last incline a straight line of about 200 meters after a bend, narrows, with a bad patch of asphalt and the maximum slope of the circuit at around 11-12%. The rest is an ascent without great gradients (from Calcinelli to Cartoceto) of about 4-6% on a relatively wide stretch of road with a good surface.
Without a doubt the descent is where the race may end up being determined, five kilometres of winding, with asphalt in a bad state, many corners and steep descents, descents that require the maximum that without doubt could be decisive. After the descent the route continues towards Lucrezia. This breakneck section is abandoned to return to a wide highway that takes us again through 4 kilometres of flat land until the start at Calcinelli. The finish, nevertheless, is located in Saltara 2.5 kms after having overcome the 10% ramp, but always climbing slightly (at about an approximate gradient of 4%). The last kilometre is within Saltara and presents a gradient of 3%, after having crossed a short but dangerous section of cobblestones.
Lamentably the most demanding part of the ascent begins just at the moment at which the circuit changes direction and starts the descent. Thus, we find ourselves with a demanding mountainous proposition, considering the length of the course and the continuous irregularity of the land. The ascent is not excessively hard, but it is uncomfortable, even more so considering than it will have to be confronted on seventeen occasions.
The conquest of the maglia tricolore is the primary objective of all of the tigers of the Italian peloton. Contrary to other countries where the races are influenced by both their proximity to the Tour de France and the two long months that have passed since the spring classics, in Italy nobody reserves anything. It is not the same thing to win a stage of the Tour in a trade team jersey as it is in the maglia tricolore, nor to be the first, emulating Moser, to enter the Roubaix velodrome in green, red and white.
The settimana tricolore is an inescapable appointment for an Italian, and that is perhaps the great difference with respect to other nations, except Belgium. The transalpino country is firmly based in the culture of the championship (national, European or world-wide), there is no greater objective that can justify absence from the national championship. For this reason the 29th of June in Saltara the complete Italian cycling aristocracy will come out [ed: well not all].
On a similar circuit, in normal conditions, the number one favourite would be Paolo Bettini. There are climbs that can break the race, but it does not favour the climbers. Maybe it will be the model cyclist that will be crowned king on the Saltara circuit. Bettini is a pure classicist, a long distance road racer, astute and equipped for the changes of pace on the climbs and with a good turn of speed in the case of a small bunch finish. On all accounts Bettini is a favourite, but he lacks the support of a team and could only count on the support of Luca Paolini (another to consider), Domenico Pasuello and Davide Bramati, a considerable handicap in the face of the powerful formations of Fassa Bortolo and Saeco. Nevertheless the pair Bettini-Paolini is, by technical characteristics, the one that is best adapted to the circuit.
Panaria are stymied by their position as a second division team, but Saltara is one of the targets of the season of Giuliano Figueras, who, if in form, is a candidate to wear the maglia tricolore. Thus they will gamble a part of their season at Saltara.
For different reasons the affluent Domina Vacanze-Elitron will also play some of their cards. They are the only team with riders from the Marche area and this in itself will demand good results. Massimo Giunti and Lorenzo Cardellini are both locals from a little more than twenty kilometres from Saltara. Michele Scarponi is from close by Jesi, and he will head a priori the options for the team and will be looking to seal a triumph after notable rides in the Giro, in addition to 7th in the Amstel Gold Race and 4th in Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Fassa Bortolo will be, with complete certainty, one of the great powers of the race and as a team the number one candidate. It has three aces up their sleeve, three winning cards: Michele Bartoli, Ivan Basso and Filippo Pozzato. At first the circuit is suitable for the technical characteristics of Pozzato, whose form, nevertheless remains hidden. Pozzato of last March, in which he conquered Tirreno-Adriatico, would have to be one of the legitimate candidates to wear maglia tricolore, a great rouleur, very quick and explosive in the final metres. Bartoli already knows the sweet smell of success from 2000 and he will look to begin to reconstruct after a first half of season he would rather forget, while Basso will arrive without doubt in magnificent condition. An astute rider and with privileged racing vision, maybe the conditions will not be suitable for him to shine on the Saltara circuit, Basso's options would be multiplied the harder the race gets.
One should not discard the fourth man of the Fassa ranks, Dario Frigo, with a season somewhat chaotic as far as planning is concerned, it will be important to see how his legs have digested the Giro.
Without a doubt the most powerful block of all of the contenders will be Saeco, displaying a team with Danilo Di Luca, Salvatore Commesso, defending champion of Italy and Mirko Celestino. At first glance Commesso and Di Luca technically suit the profile of the course. Both have taken the season discreetly and disappointingly to date, but the proximity of the Tour requires that they be taken into account as two of the better-equipped candidates for the victory. Di Luca will arrive, perhaps something short of form because of his recent broken collarbone that has delayed his preparation for the Tour de France. Nevertheless if he recovers from this he will be the leader of Saeco.
Italian cycling, a luxury establishment, the one that offers the strongest national squad in the world, and the best of each house in a combat to the death that promises to constitute one of the most attractive events of Italian 2003 calendar, on a circuit, Saltara, complicated, but open to all types of initiatives on the part of diverse riding characteristics and before an attentive crowd in a region that has welcomed the last week of June, the most important cycling event of its history. Saltara has dressed up at length to celebrate an unrepeatable fiesta, a unique celebration, a historical event, the completion of illusions of a people and town that will turn out on foot to the race to impatiently await, between coffee and bets of tavern the arrival of their idols.