Perhaps it’s hard to believe for an Italian rider, but former world champion Alessandro Ballan has never raced the Giro d’Italia.
Italian pros typically hold the Giro on the same plane as the Tour de France, yet Ballan is set to make his first Giro start this season with BMC.
“When I was with Lampre, I would always race the northern classics and the Tour,” Ballan told VeloNews. “I preferred racing the Tour because the classics were so difficult, I needed more time to recover and the Giro came too soon. This year we decided to do something different.”
Part of the reason Ballan will be headed to the Giro instead of the Tour is that BMC will have additional firepower to help team leader Cadel Evans make a run for the yellow jersey. Manuel Quinziato will help fill the role as road captain while Amael Moinard, Johan Tschopp and Ivan Santaromita add some legs for the mountains.
Ballan has been a consistent Tour performer in five starts dating back to 2006. He’s pinned his hopes on a stage victory marked with decisive breakaways, usually in the second and third weeks. He’s notched a handfuls of top fives, including second to Yaroslav Popovych in stage 12 in the 2006 Tour.
This year, the 31-year-old will head to the Giro for the first time of his career, and he insists he’ll do fine despite seven mountain-top finishes.
“The Giro is a very important race for Italian riders, so in that regard I am excited about racing this year,” he continued. “It’s a difficult course, with seven mountain finishes, but remember the Vuelta (2008) when I won a stage in the mountains there in Andorra. I can defend in the mountains. To win a Giro stage would be wonderful and to win on the white roads of Tuscany would be like a dream.”
In fact, Italy will be a big part of Ballan’s schedule throughout 2011. After debuting at the Tour Down Under last month, he’ll race at Trofeo Laiguelia, the Giro di Sardegna, Friuli and Eroica ahead of Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo. From there, he heads north to compete in Ghent-Wevelgem, Three Days of De Panne, Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
Ballan will try to carry some post-Giro form into the Italian championships in late June before taking July off ahead of racing the Vuelta a España. He realizes with the sprint-friendly course waiting in Denmark, making the world championship team will be a challenge.
“The course is not ideal for my characteristics, but I still hope to be selected for the worlds,” Ballan said during a break at the BMC training camp last week in Spain. “I will be ready to go if the team decides they need me.”
Last year in a move to BMC, Ballan struggled to find his winning formula and went winless for the first time since his rookie season in 2004.
The team also sidelined Ballan for more than one month over allegations of doping practices from a few years ago during his stint at Lampre, but was returned to the fold when investigators found no evidence of foul play.
“It was a hard season for me last year. I had many distractions that didn’t allow me to be at my best. In cycling, you need to have a clear head to be able to perform,” Ballan explained. “I never really felt great all season. I was sick and I wasn’t very good at the Tour. I also had some problems with English here on the team. It was a big change for me after riding for an Italian team my whole career. Now I feel better here. I am speaking more English, and there are more Italians on the team.”
Ballan says he’s optimistic he can be back at his best this season and said his 11th place showing at the Tour Down Under provides a good footing going ahead into the season’s first major goal at the northern classics.
“I’ve already won Flanders, so I’d love to win Roubaix,” he said. “We have a much better classics team this year at BMC. I think we’re among the best classics teams out there. We will have a strong bloc of riders.”