By Andrew Hood
After a sub-par 2008 campaign with just two minor victories and a snub at selection for the Italian national team for the world championships in Varese, a fresh start at the Russian-sponsored Katusha is just what Pozzato says he needs to erase the bad memories.
“I felt the pressure,” Pozzato tells VeloNews. “Every time you don’t win, they start writing about that. I knew sooner or later, the wins would come, but by the end of the year, I hadn’t won very much.”
The swashbuckling Italian is doubly motivated at the start of the 2009 season to quiet doubters who believe he will never quite live up to expectations piled him on by the Italian media and tifosi.
Pozzato’s goals won’t change much in 2009 — it’s still all about the spring classics — but he’s counting on new motivation and a new team to push him back into the spotlight.
“I am not panicking about things because I know last year I was strong, I just didn’t have much luck,” he says. “I wanted to win. I expected to win, but then I would end up second again. Things weren’t just going my way.”
Throughout his career, Pozzato has had the uncanny knack to snag that one big win that saved his season, reconfirmed his reputation as a star on the cusp of greatness and kept him on the tongue of every Italian sports director.
When he couldn’t produce that elusive big win in 2008, everyone knew it was time for a change.
His two-year deal at Liquigas was up, and coupled with the arrival of Ivan Basso, Pozzato could see the writing on the wall and began looking for a new team.
Katusha came along at the right time, a start-up team willing to sign big names to lend instant credibility to its roster.
“This team gives me all the confidence and support I need to win races,” Pozzato said. “Last year, I didn’t have much confidence and I didn’t have much luck, either. This team will back me and I hope to do some big things in the spring classics this year.”
From seconds to worlds snub
Throughout his 10-year career, the flamboyant Pozzato has always managed to pull something dramatic out of the hat ever since his breakout season in 2003, when he won the Trofeo Laigueglia and a stage and the overall at Tirreno-Adriatico.
In 2004, in his final year with Fassa Bortolo, he took a huge victory in stage 7 of the Tour de France. In 2005, he saved his season after coming out on top at the HEW Cyclassics in Germany in August.
The following year, he played the joker and delivered the most important victory at Milan-San Remo. That was followed up with a move to Liquigas and victory in Het Volk and another Tour stage victory in 2007.
That streak ended last year in what Pozzato describes as the most frustrating season as a pro.
“Things went well enough last year, things just didn’t go as well as I had hoped,” he explains. “I felt strong, I was training well. I just missed that little piece of luck. It was frustrating.”
When asked how many wins he had in 2008, he doesn’t even reply. He just holds up two index fingers and shrugs.
Those wins came early, with a stage and the overall at the lowly February race at the Giro di Grosseto, hardly headline-grabbing stuff.
From there, it was one frustration after another.
He was twice second in stages at Tirreno-Adriatico and entered Milan-San Remo confident of another win, but the barnstorming Fabian Cancellara attacked in the final kilometer to surprise the pack. Pozzato was second.
“Last year I got a lot of second places, but no one remembers those,” he says with a sigh. “I want to race like I did before, but get more wins. Then everyone will be happy.”
He notched a career-best sixth at Tour of Flanders and doggedly pushed through the rest of the season, searching in vain for that elusive season-saver.
There was a third in a stage at the Tour and a second-place in a stage at the Vuelta a España, more close calls before the biggest insult of all — he was left off the Italian national team for the world championships in Varese, Italy.
“It was a big disappointment to miss the worlds. How many times are you going to have the worlds in your home country?” he says. “It’s (Franco) Ballerini who decides who goes or not. I knew I could contribute, but when they finish first and second, who can debate that?”
Back to classics
Pozzato knows where his strengths lie and he’s not pushing the panic button despite last year’s tribulations. The spring classics remain his focus and obsession.
After his debut in Qatar, he’ll race the Ruta del Sol, Trofeo Laigueglia, Het Volk (now Het Nieuwsblad), Monte Paschi Eroica, Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo before diving into the north classics.
“I am a rider for the classics – that’s not going to change,” he explains. “I value the other races and victories, but I am born to race the classics. I don’t have the build to race day-in and day-out to be a GC rider for a grand tour. I cannot beat the best sprinters every time, but I can win classics.”
Pozzato said the history, prestige, difficulty and intense competition of the one-day classics are what’s most alluring about racing.
“When I was young, those were the races that I dreamed about winning,” he said. “When I won Milan-San Remo in 2006, it was a dream come true. To win was just incredible. I want to have that feeling again.”
Katusha will bring a strong group with Pozzato, Sergey Ivanov and Gert Steegmans to lead and an army of Russian workers to support.
With the dramatic 2006 San Remo win in his pocket, he’s hoping to pop for something even bigger this year on the cobblestones of northern France and Belgium.
“I’ve already won San Remo nearly three years ago, so now it’s time to look forward to new victories,” he says. “Of course, I want to win Flanders and Roubaix. At those races, when you’re the strongest that day, you win. At San Remo, there can still be 20 guys who can win in the sprint.”
That’s not to say that Pozzato wouldn’t welcome a second San Remo title, it’s just that the allure and challenge of the northern classics is more enticing.
“What’s harder to achieve, better the prize,” he said. “Technically, I would say Flanders is better for me than Roubaix. Due to history, Roubaix is considered more important. Both races are very significant.”
Right now, just about any major win would be fine for Pozzato. In his book, he’s long overdue.