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85th Giro d'Italia (GT)
Italy, May 11-June 2, 2002
Alessandro Petacchi: A Fassabulous season
By Anthony Tan
Unless you're someone like Erik Zabel, who has an uncanny ability to win all year round, sprinters tend to have a "blinder" of a season or have a season characterised by, well, nothing at all really.
For Alessandro Petacchi from Fassa Bortolo, this year he's having a blinder.
The 28 year old Italian had only one win during his first four years with Scrigno Blue Storm (which later became known as Scrigno-Gaerne in 1997 and then Navigare Gaerne in 1999), but after switching to Giancarlo Ferretti's Fassa Bortolo squadra two years ago, things started going right.
Nine wins in his first year, including two stages of the Vuelta must have been a massive weight off Petacchi's shoulders after four lacklustre years. However it was both a blessing and a curse: the overzealous Italian press dubbed him the "next Cipollini" - an unfair expectation by any sprinter's standards. It's not suprising then that Petacchi felt the heat in 2001 after the press had already written off Super Mario, saying he was too old to be a sprinter. Fortunately for Petacchi, the season wasn't a total write off, with five wins, including one in the Settimana Ciclistica Internazionale and two stages in Settimana Lombarda.
However Petacchi's flame was still burning, and he wasn't going to let ravenous journalists stamp out the fire in his heart.
Judging from what we've been witnessed in 2002, there's a couple of Italian reporters out there with their Gucci shoes still stuck on in their mouths; and neither Mario Cipollini nor Alessandro Petacchi is going to help pull them out. Mario Cipollini enjoyed his best spring classics season ever, with huge wins in Milan-San Remo and Gent-Wevelgem, and Signore Petacchi has been pulling rabbits out of his seemingly bottomless hat, clocking up nine wins in the space of two months.
Overall it's been a great start to the season for the ragazzi from Fassa, and it's largely a result of the efforts of Petacchi and his team-mate and confidant Michele Bartoli.
In the Tour Méditerranéen, Bartoli won the overall while Petacchi won the final stage into Marseille. Here Petacchi beat none other than Re Leone, Mario Cipollini, as well as holding the leader's jersey for two stages, before handing it back to Bartoli after "Il guerriero" (The warrior) destroyed the field on the slopes of Mont Faron.
Less than a fortnight later in southern Spain, at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, Petacchi won three consecutive stages, suprising the likes of in-form sprinters Zabel, Cipollini and Freire, as well as holding the leader's jersey for three days. Even for one as level-headed as Petacchi, he was slowly venturing towards the clouds:
"This is an exceptional moment for us (the Fassa Bortolo team); we dominated in France (at Tour of Med) and now we're doing the same here in Spain," said Petacchi. "I could not have imagined a better start to the season."
To the detriment of the sprinters, it just kept getting better for the man from the shipping village of La Spezia (also known as Liguria). In Paris-Nice, Petacchi was quickest in the bunch sprint on stage one, beating renowned fastmen Jaan Kirsipuu (Ag2r) and Australian champion Robbie McEwen (Lotto) in the rush to the line, simultaneously claiming the leader's jersey.
Four days later, on a stage characterised by multiple climbs with a bunch sprint being an unlikely conclusion, Petacchi shocked all, climbing at ease with riders such as Unai Extebarria, Merckx, Virenque, Evans, Frigo and overall winner Vinokourov - and then outsprinting the lot to take the stage. Petacchi was now pleasantly suprising even himself as his season was adopting an almost surreal-like quality:
"I gave myself virtually no chance at the victory and I didn't have the ideal gear for the sprint. To win on this type of course, that shows that I am not a sprinter."
His dream run didn't end after the stage into Cannes however; Petacchi took his fourth leader's jersey in less than two months after winning another three consecutive stages in the Settimana Ciclistica Internazionale Coppi-Bartali, before handing over the reign to team-mate Francesco Casagrande. What a start to the season.
His last words after his stage win at Paris-Nice are important: Petacchi realises he doesn't possess the straight-line sprinting power of Mario Cipollini or Tom Steels - his preference is for a slightly uphill sprint finish. In 2002 he has clearly shown he is much more than just a sprinter, and will most likely become a feared classics rider or short stage-race specialist in the near future.
Petacchi's dream is to win Milan-San Remo - something he didn't manage to achieve this year, which he attributes to overtraining; however with Mario Cipollini winning MSR at 36, Petacchi has plenty of time on his side.
CN: How do you feel your season has gone so far this year?
AP: Up to now my season has gone very well; much higher than my initial expectations, and I can say that it has been more than positive - I knew I had to start the season well, but I did not think I would win so much. No way did I think that I would go so well on the climbs in Valenciana and Paris-Nice, and has been a good surprise to beat sprinters of such high calibre, like Zabel, Freire and Cipollini.
CN: What are your team's goals for the Giro d'Italia?
Alberto Volpi, DS: We have a dual objective for this year's Giro: to win the overall classification with Francesco Casagrande and to take stage wins with Bartoli, Petacchi and Konychev. Our team is complete and ready to do well; physically, Casagrande is at the same level as last year and is very relaxed, and we hope that good fortune is with us. And don't forget Honchar, who could do very well in the time trials, which would be a most welcome surprise, like the victory of Matteo Tosatto last year at Montebelluna.
CN: How important is the Giro to you?
AP: For me it is important, because the Giro is not only an important race, it's an Italian race, and one that I have always followed and one that is always followed by the tifosi.
CN: What are your personal goals for the Giro - are there any stages in particular you would like to win?
AP: I would like to win a stage and to even wear the maglia rosa. I have not seen the route, but the type of stages that best suit me are not too easy at the finish, with about fifty riders left and where pure speed is not everything; or a finish that is extremely strenuous.
CN: Who will be your directeur-sportif for the Giro?
Alberto Volpi: Giancarlo Ferretti
CN: Do you know who your room-mate will be for the Giro - is it the same for all races?
AP: I know it's Michele Bartoli - it's always him! We are good together; we have similar personalities, the same race schedules and we are great friends. Sometimes I also go and spend my holidays with him in the Maldives.
CN: What do you do to relax during a race as big as the Giro d'Italia?
AP: For relaxation, I read comic books, watch some comedy shows on television, and surf the Internet.
CN: What are your favourite foods to eat during the Giro?
AP: I really like home-made gnocchi from my grandmother, but it's difficult to find something similar when racing. We'll see, perhaps there will be some in Tuscany. I also like Nutella (hazelnut spread)… I am really greedy with this!
CN: Are you superstitious? - Do you have or wear a good-luck charm to bring you success?
AP: I am quite superstituous but I don't take any good-luck charms with me; however I always carry a photo of my girlfriend.
CN: Will you be riding the Tour de France or the Vuelta after the Giro?
AP: After the Giro, I will do the Vuelta and hope to win a stage like I did two years ago.
CN: What are your objectives for the rest of the 2002 season?
AP: To win a stage of the Giro and the Vuelta and also to go to the World Championships. I have not seen the parcours, but Michele Bartoli has said to me that it was a course that wasn't as demanding as previous years and it is well suited to my style and ability.
A big thanks to Myriam Nordemann from Fassa Bortolo Public Relations for organising this interview.