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Francesco Casagrande: A second chance

Francesco Casagrande is an old-fashioned racer. He comes from a different school than pro cycling's other stars, despite his No. 1 UCI ranking. His passion for the profession is rooted in an appreciation of the great riders of the past (remember last year's Giro when he dedicated his victory on the Abetone to Gino Bartali?), and his understanding of the sport's traditions. That said, one of the most important developments in Casagrande's career is his new partnership at Fassa Bortolo with Giancarlo Ferretti, one of Europe's most celebrated and esteemed directeurs sportifs. Casagrande is one

Tactical errors and a pinched nerve cost Francesco Casagrande the 2000 Giro. He’s ready to redeem himself.

By Tony Lo Schiavo, Bicisport Vice Director

Photo: Graham Watson

Francesco Casagrande is an old-fashioned racer. He comes from a different school than pro cycling’s other stars, despite his No. 1 UCI ranking. His passion for the profession is rooted in an appreciation of the great riders of the past (remember last year’s Giro when he dedicated his victory on the Abetone to Gino Bartali?), and his understanding of the sport’s traditions. That said, one of the most important developments in Casagrande’s career is his new partnership at Fassa Bortolo with Giancarlo Ferretti, one of Europe’s most celebrated and esteemed directeurs sportifs.

Casagrande is one of the few riders with the ability and mindset to race at the top all year long, even though his focus is to win major events. From February to October, he’s consistently able to achieve great results, even if that big win — that one important victory necessary to qualify him as a campione — has proved elusive. He came close last year, when it appeared he had the Giro d’Italia in the bag.

Everyone knows he lost the race in the final time trial, but errors made in earlier stages allowed final winner Stefano Garzelli to stay within striking distance. The first bad decision came on stage 13 in the Dolomites….

“I was … feeling really good … at the start of the Marmolada [climb], so I decided to strike,” Casagrande said “Only Garzelli and [Ivan] Gotti could respond, but when I saw that they were not willing to work with me, I eased up and allowed the others to catch us. That turned out to be a mistake, since they ended up surrounding me on the Sella [the next climb]. At that point, concerned about jumping to chase everyone, I let [Gilberto] Simoni go and stayed on Garzelli’s wheel. I was alone against 10 others and had to make some choices…”

But certainly his biggest error came the next day on the Gavia. It was very cold and Garzelli was noticeably struggling. Simoni made an all-out attack. At first, Casagrande just watched. Then he chased, leaving Garzelli, to catch Simoni. It was the decisive moment. Casagrande could have chosen to inflict more damage, but didn’t. “I didn’t consider Garzelli a potential Giro d’Italia winner,” admitted Casagrande. “and didn’t worry about him much.

“Unfortunately, that day I gave him a bit of a rest, and [five days later] in the Briançon stage a very strong Pantani returned to Garzelli’s side, which saved him. Perhaps I also committed the error of not attacking on that stage, but the decisive time trial was the next day and I was worried that using too much energy would hurt me in that final test.

“The next morning, I was tense; you can’t be calm with such a small lead [25 seconds]. I was walking a tightrope, and all it would have taken was a flat to lose everything. Something was also gnawing at me….”

That something was a physical problem Casagrande had been living with for several years.

“In the 1997 Tour de France, in the time trial, I was suffering terribly because of a problem with my sciatic nerve [that passes down the back of the thigh],” he explained. “A sharp and continuous pain made the time trial an ordeal.…

“The same thing happened at the mountain time trial in Montjuich at the end of that season. It scared me. I put an insole, then padding, in the one shoe. Doctors and specialists examined me. I had x-rays and magnetic-resonance tests done, but nothing was resolved until I found an American chiropractor who lives in Florence.

“He listened to what I told him then pressed his finger against a precise place on my hip, which hurt like crazy. He smiled and explained to me that following a fall, or because of cold starts, the pelvis tends to shift and can compress the sciatic nerve. He told me very frankly that there were no cures aside from periodic [chiropractic] adjustments….

“That’s the reason I had an adjustment done three days before the start of last year’s Giro, and I felt really good even during the [stage 11] time trial at Bibione. I actually wanted to have another adjustment done the evening before the Prato stage [Prato is 15km from Florence where the American chiropractor lives], but it was Sunday and I didn’t want to bother him.”

That was a decision typical of the gentlemanly Casagrande, but one he would regret. As soon as the stage 20 time trial began, the maglia rosa complained of searing pain in his sciatic nerve. It only took a few kilometers for him to realize that his Giro victory was slipping away. His performance improved when the pain decreased during the second part of his ride, but it was too late by then.

That defeat has made the Tuscan even more determined to win the Giro in 2001, and his new team director is convinced that a Giro victory is within Casagrande’s reach.

“It will be necessary … to better focus his strengths — physical and mental,” said Ferretti, who persuaded his rider to have a quieter spring this year. The highlights were a fourth place at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and overall victory at the Giro del Trentini (including a mountain stage win).

“Francesco is a racer who gives his all; he’s someone who never holds back when he races,” Ferretti continued. “He is very competitive, but when he gets tired it can be costly. I believe that this is the reason why, in his career, he has not yet attained those victories that, in my opinion, he’s is capable of, even if he has enjoyed great consistency at the top.”

Having the wise, 59-year-old Ferretti at his side during the Giro should have a calming influence on the highly strung Casagrande, who said: “I am feeling really good in this new environment…. Ferretti is really great; he is someone who knows how to help you give everything you’ve got. This year’s Giro might be less difficult than last year’s, which doesn’t bother me a bit. My 2001 season starts with the Giro. I’ll decide on other objectives afterwards….”