By Justin Davis-Copyright AFP2004
Paolo Bettini could become only the 12th rider to win the World Cup opening Milan-San Remo for the second year in a row when the one-day classic kicks off this Saturday.
The 29-year-old Italian, who rides for Quick Step, got his season off to the perfect start last year when he won the La Primavera for the first time before lifting the ten-race World Cup title for the second year in a row.
This year the energetic rider known as the “little cricket” has already laid some solid foundations, winning Tirreno-Adriatico on Tuesday after claiming two stage wins to show his sprinting form. Bettini last year succeeded compatriot Mario Cipollini as the Primavera champion and could have the disadvantage of being the man everyone will be watching over a winding and undulating 294km. Should he falter in a race, which Belgian legend Eddy Merckx won seven times, there are numerous riders who could beat him to the finish on La Via Roma.
Bettini’s main rivals, among others, are Kazakhstan’s Alexandre Vinokourov, four-time winner Erik Zabel of Germany, and Peter Van Petegem of Belgium.
Add the likes of Italian sprint sensation Alessandro Petacchi and 2002 winner Cipollini and it’s plain to see that Bettini’s task won’t be easy.
Vinokourov’s record speaks for itself. Despite never having won, 30-year-old T-Mobile stalwart, who came third overall on last year’s Tour de France behind Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich, is in fine form. “Vino’” recently won three stages on the Paris-Nice stage race, on which he was the two-time defending champion, as he broke easily away from groups of riders who mostly failed to follow him.
Zabel, the 33-year-old former king of the Tour de France sprints, last won the race in 2001 and has the legs to find himself among the front group when the usual attacks go on the late climbs at “Cipressa” – around 24km from the finish – and the “Poggio” less than six kilometres from the end.
Aussie sprinter Baden Cooke, who has been laid low with a virus, admits Zabel still has what it takes.
“Zabel should be one of the more experienced riders to look out for,” Cooke told AFP.
“He’s dangerous – but that’s not to say some of the younger guys won’t find themselves up there.” Van Petegem, of Lotto, won a prestigious Paris-Roubaix/Tour of Flanders double last year and showed his recent form when he finished among the leaders on perhaps the toughest day of Tirreno-Adriatico.
As a result his team manager Marc Sergeant is feeling optimistic.
“Van Petegem is in shape,” Sergeant told Belgian newspaper La Derniere Heure.
“You don’t finish 12th on a stage that hard without feeling really good. Besides, he’s capable of beating anyone in a group sprint, and his rivals know that. Particularly Bettini.”
Cipollini meanwhile left Tirreno-Adriatico early in a bid to rest up for Italy’s most prestigious one-day race, saying he was “150 percent” motivated.
However the 36-year-old Domina Vacanze rider will still have to watch out for Petacchi, who should have the support of his Fassa Bortolo teammates, Filippo Pozzato and Franck Vandenbroucke.
Petacchi, who set a benchmark last year when he won at least three stages in all of cycling’s big Tours, has beaten “Cipo’” in head-to-head sprints at least three times this season.
“I hope it finishes in a sprint,” said Petacchi after his final stage victory in the Tirreno-Adriatico on Tuesday.
“I expect to be attacked from the Cipressa until the finish but I have a strong team with me and we’ve got several options.”