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Italian drought over the cobbles likely to continue

It's been nearly 10 years since an Italian won a major cobblestone classic, and it appears likely the streak will continue this season.

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Last weekend’s victory by FDJ’s Arnaud Démare at Milano-Sanremo ended a nearly two-decades-long French drought in the monuments.

Things are equally bleak in Italy. While Italians still can win races like Giro di Lombardia and challenge in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, it’s been almost 10 years since an Italian won a major cobblestone classic — Alessandro Ballan won the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) in 2007.

That’s in sharp contrast to the 1990s, when Italian riders were major players in the cobbled one-day races.

“It was like the ‘golden age’ for Italian cycling in the 1990s in the classics,” Astana sport director Stefano Zanini, a winner of Amstel Gold Race, told VeloNews. “Now the young riders want to be climbers. They train with the SRM, and maybe they are too soft to suffer like it takes to win a race over the cobbles. There is a high level for the classics these days, but none of them are Italian.”

A generation ago, Italians were a major force in the northern classics. Zanini was joined by Franco Ballerini, Andrea Tafi, Moreno Argentin, Gianni Bugno, and Michele Bartali, who emerged to dominate the northern classics, and challenged Johan Museeuw and Peter Van Petegem in the 1990s. Some of those performances have since been tarnished with the asterisk of the EPO era, but today you’ll be hard-pressed to find an Italian punching onto the long list of pre-race favorites.

Once favorites in nearly every major classic, the Italians are largely absent in one-day racing. Riders like Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Diego Ulissi (Lampre – Merida) can shine in the Ardennes or in the Giro di Lombardia, but almost no one with an Italian accent will be a protagonist over the pavé.

Filippo Pozzato twice finished on cobblestone podiums (2nd at 2012 Flanders, 2nd at 2009 Roubaix), but at 34, he looks to be past his expiration date. Moreno Moser (Cannondale), nephew of three-time Roubaix winner Francesco Moser, has so far failed to live up to expectations. Luca Paolini, winner of last year’s Gent-Wevelgem in heroic conditions, is now facing a ban over a cocaine positive.

Tinkoff’s Oscar Gatto is considered a rising prospect and insisted the passion for the pavé still lives in Italy, but this year he is riding to support world champion Peter Sagan.

“There are not many Italians who like the northern classics,” Gatto said. “This year, everything is for Peter. We need to be present in the key moments, and maybe if something bad happens, I can try, but this year, we ride for Peter.”

There is one Italian who seems born to bash the pavé, and that’s Etixx – Quick-Step’s Matteo Trentin. Even he admits he feels a little bit lonely sometimes in the trenches.

“We must keep the Italian tradition alive in the northern classics. Maybe it’s up to me,” said Trentin, who was third in last year’s E3-Harelbeke, the best Italian result in the northern classics in nearly a decade behind Paolini’s Gent-Wevelgem win. “Today’s young riders in Italy are looking more toward stage racing. But for me, classics racing is the best of cycling. I love it.”

Italy is unquestionably strong in stage racing, with Nibali, Ulissi, and Astana’s Fabio Aru leading a new generation of Italian climbers. It’s that allure of winning the Tour or the Giro, not riding in the mud and manure of Flanders, that’s capturing the attention of a new generation of Italians.

“Everyone wants to be like Pantani,” said Cannondale sport director Fabrizio Guidi, an ex-sprinter who raced the northern classics throughout his racing career. “I think part of it is coincidental. Now, we have very good Italian climbers, and that’s how Italian cycling is going. We need to build the riders when they are young, but the young Italians don’t seem interested in the classics.”

For Zanini, who raced on Mapei, Quick-Step, and Saeco, one big reason behind Italy’s decline as a cobblestone superpower is that young Italians no longer race north of the Alps at the junior and U23 levels.

“Italy is not taking its young riders to Belgium to race or anywhere else. They only race in Italy now,” Zanini said. “Racing in Belgium is like the university of cycling. It is there where you learn everything about being a professional. Until the riders can taste this style of racing, they will focus on the stage races.”

Italy might never see another Pantani, but the way things are going, it won’t see another Roubaix winner for a long time, either.