By Steve Smith, Special to VeloNews
BASSANO, Italy — It is Monday morning and I’m still too drowsy to fully engage in the level of excitement with which my Italian work mates face the most mundane of activities. Our PR guy Marco mentions some event that evening hosted by Ciclismo magazine and so I somewhat reluctantly volunteer to go along, thinking it will be good to show my face and help schmooze some free press. I didn’t really understand exactly what we were going to, but figured it would be good for the company. My first clue was as we were leaving and he said “you’re going to wear that?”
We arrive at an auditorium and the parking lot is already full. Numerous team cars are in the parking lot. We are met at the door where a guy from the Acca Due O-Lorena women’s team ushers us past the guards. He chatters non-stop about their new world champion Rasa Polikeviciute and leads us to a reception hall packed with Armani suited who’s who of cycling. Oscar Freire, Davide Rebellin, Francesco Moser, Franco Ballerini, Gilberto Simoni, Pietro Cauchioli, Danielle Nardello, Paolo Bettini, Davide Cassani, Dino Signori, Fausto Pinarello, and others are there.
About this time I’m starting to understand that this is the season-ending Gran Gala Internazionale di Ciclismo, a sort of Grammy awards for cycling. We make our way to the auditorium where they launch into the 2001 awards. The evening proceeds uneventfully except for the periodic musical interludes with a string quartet ABBA cover band. The crowd applauds politely.
As the evening is getting late, they get around to the important awards. Up until this point, the recipients came up on stage to receive their awards and then went back to their seats. But after Simoni gets his Giro d’Italia award, he is invited to sit down on the red sofa. Next is Rebellin for his best local rider award, and he joins Simoni on the red sofa. Add Nardello for his national championship and Bettini for his “almost” ride in Lisbon, and I’m starting to have flashbacks of the Merv Griffin show.
At this point they award Rasa Polikeviciute for her world championship, and the town mayor who is supposed to deliver the award can hardly stumble over her fast enough to get back to shake the hands of the four guys on the red couch. Rasa goes back to her seat, and they announce a lifetime achievement award for Ballerini. The crowd cheers wildly as the video montage of Ballerini’s career on the cobbles is played. He joins the others on stage, and somehow Francesco Moser invites himself on stage as well.
Now Cassani announces that they have prepared another special video for the evening. The lights dim and we pick up the world championship road race on the last lap shortly after Simoni has attacked. We follow the action until the pack finally crests the hill with a 14-second deficit and 4 kms to go. As you will recall, Simoni had a good chance to win except that fellow Italian Paolo Lanfranchi of Mapei chased him down. Lanfranchi has claimed ignorance, saying he didn’t know Simoni was away.
Cassani has turned from Merv Griffin into Jerry Springer. He incites the guests by re-opening the controversy of how could it be that Lanfranchi didn’t know. Pandemonium erupts. Bettini: “We shouldn’t accuse Lanfranchi since he isn’t here to defend himself. I talked with Lanfranchi and I want to believe him. He told me he didn’t see Simoni go away, and then he thought Simoni had been caught.”
The contradiction wasn’t lost on crowd. Ballerini repeats the plea to not accuse Lanfranchi and is visually angry. Simoni adds, “I too want to believe Lanfranchi, but the hill was dead straight and a wide road. You could see for a mile. Mazzoleni (and Lampre teammate) was at the back of the group and said he could see everything.”
They continue to show that Lanfranchi was the 17th rider over the top of the hill, and proceeded to chase for 58 seconds and closed the gap from 18 to 4 seconds. After continuing to batter Lanfranchi, with any attempt to defend him wildly booed by the disapproving crowd, Cassani asks why the rest of the team didn’t try to stop him. Simoni is quick to agree, while Moser directly accuses Bettini for not taking it upon himself to stop him. They continue on to discuss the sprint, the lack of organization, Bartoli’s refusal to help Bettini, etc.
Bettini tries to turn it back on Lanfranchi by asking why he was able to sprint for 12th place but not help in the leadout.
It’s hard to really describe the scene other than to think of classic Jerry Springer. The yelling, the crowds, the backstage views, the “experts.” Finally Ballerini gets angry enough that he leaves, saying that he has to be in Lazio tomorrow morning.
To cap it off, they finally bring up Freire for his world champion award. He politely accepts the award on behalf of his Spanish team who he says worked selflessly for him the entire day. He thanked the Mapei organization the Spanish coaches, and everyone who believed in him. The only person he didn’t thank directly was Lanfranchi.