By John Wilcockson
For the past eight years, the Italian national pro men’s road squad has been the team to beat at the world’s. And each time, the team has been beaten. The closest the famous azzuri have come to taking the supreme rainbow jersey was a silver medal by the now-retired Claudio Chiappucci in 1994. Two others have won bronze medals: Marco Pantani in 1995 and Michele Bartoli in 1996 and ’98.
Bartoli is back as one of the Italian team’s leaders, and his recent transfer to the Fassa Bortolo trade team should bring some focus to his newest assault on the title. That’s because Fassa Bortolo also has the on-form Francesco Casagrande and Ivan Basso on the national team.
These three could form a formidable unit within the team, even more so than the other team leaders, Davide Rebellin (supported by Liquigas teammate Gianni Faresin), Paolo Bettini (who can count on Mapei colleagues Paolo Lanfranchi and Daniele Nardello) and Gilberto Simon (no Lampre teammates on the squad).
Of course, the Italians’ greatest hope of success lies in them putting their trade ream affiliations aside and working for the strongest rider on the day — something that new national coach Franco Ballerini is hoping to achieve.
To win the race, teamwork is essential on this 12.1km Lisbon circuit. That was proved both Friday (in the Ukraine’s domination of the under-23 race) and Saturday (when the Lithuanians pulled off the victory along with placing three others in the top 11).
Against the Italian 12-man juggernaut, the strongest teams are Spain (riding for 1999 champion Oscar Freire), Germany (led by time trial champion Jan Ullrich), the Netherlands (Michael Boogerd and Erik Dekker), Belgium (Andrei Tchmil) and France (where Richard Virenque is the designated leader in the absence of Laurent Jalabert).
Smaller national teams hoping for opportunist openings are Australia (Cadel Evans being the man on form), the U.S. (Levi Leipheimer) and Russia (Dmitri Konyshev).
The pro race is notoriously difficult to predict, but reading the tactics in the context of other races this weekend, we can expect it to come down to a battle between Casagrande (or Bartoli), Ullrich and a highly motivated Leipheimer.
There will be 172 riders on the start line Sunday morning, with a seven-hour race in prospect over 21 laps, and 254.1km. Look for updates throughout the day Sunday, and a complete report at the end of the day at velonews.com.