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Italy’s young guns will key off Spain and Belgium at worlds

Bettini, Nibali excited with a young Italian squad in the Netherlands, point to Spain, Belgium as favorites

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VALKENBURG, Netherlands (VN) — Italy fine-tuned its green nine-rider team for the elite men’s world championship road race Thursday night. It includes a record seven men making their debuts in the UCI Road World Championships as pros and Vincenzo Nibali as the leader.

Eros Capecchi and Giacomo Nizzolo are on standby, and Nibali will count on Luca Paolini, Rinaldo Nocentini, Oscar Gatto, Moreno Moser, Diego Ulissi, Marco Marcato, Dario Cataldo and Matteo Trentin to back his run at rainbow stripes on Sunday. The average age of the team is 27.4 years.

“We are a young team; we have to focus on the young riders,” Nibali told VeloNews. “Sooner or later, our team will develop. It could work to our advantage; we are smart and know how to read the race. Look at Moser and Ulissi. Plus we have the experienced hands Paolini and Nocentini.”

Nibali last raced the worlds in Geelong, Australia, in 2009. Paolini and Nocentini have been around for years. Paolini raced for Mapei and Nocentini held the yellow jersey in the Tour de France in 2009. Since last year, though, Italy prohibits the selection of riders that have served a doping ban of more than six months or are being investigated for doping. The decision shaped Italy’s 2012 worlds team, eliminating a number of veterans from joining Paolini and Nocentini in Valkenburg.

Director Paolo Bettini thought about bringing former world champion Alessandro Ballan and multiple-time national champ Giovanni Visconti, but was unable due to their ties to open investigations. However, he is fielding potential stars like Moser, the nephew of Francesco Moser, who won the Tour of Poland this year as a neo-pro.

“I’ll have fun with my guys,” Bettini said. “These guys were part of my training camps that I’ve been having in the last two years. It’d be great to start to see the fruits of our labor. The rainbow jersey would be fantastic; the podium would be beautiful.”

The pressure falls squarely on Nibali’s shoulders. He has shown he is capable of nabbing a result in the hilly Benelux country. He placed third in the Tour this year, and in one-day races, he nearly won Milan-San Remo and Liège-Bastogne-Liège this year. His only concerns are his sprint and the 1500 meters that follow the last climb up the Cauberg. He plans to assess the situation after the group whittles itself down over the final five circuits on Sunday afternoon.

“I think in the last four to five laps we are already going to see the race taking shape and have an idea of the winning riders,” Nibali said. “With two laps to go, the race will explode. All you need is one strong acceleration and the group will explode, with the riders all lined out. With the wind and the Dutch roads, and if it rains, it’s going to be interesting.”

Nibali referred to another young squad, the U.S. National Team, which has also been shaped by recent doping investigations, as a darkhorse contender. Former Lance Armstrong teammates Tom Danielson, Levi Leipheimer, Christian Vande Velde, David Zabriskie and now-retired George Hincapie requested to be left off the U.S. squad for the London Olympics and none are competing in Valkenburg. Tejay van Garderen, who finished two places behind Nibali at the Tour and wore the best young rider’s jersey in Paris, is leading the American charge.

“They are also a young team, but you need to see on a long race like this if they are able to have the numbers in the end,” said Nibali.

Not surprisingly, Bettini said that Italy, the U.S. and other teams would base their races on top favorites Spain and Belgium on Sunday. With the Spanish and Belgian riders forced to take control on the circuits around Limburg, the Squadra Azzura will try to take advantage and launch Nibali to Italy’s first men’s world road title since 2008 — the year after Bettini’s own retirement.