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Meet Filippo Ganna, Italy’s next big star

World champion in individual pursuit and individual time trial, Filippo Ganna will target gold in Tokyo before transitioning toward the northern classics next season.

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Italy’s cycling fans have been waiting for a new star for a long time. These are lean times in the Italian peloton. Vincenzo Nibali is winding down, Fabio Aru is bedeviled with injuries, and Elia Viviani seems to have the Patrick Lefevere curse since leaving Deceuninck-Quick-Step.

Stepping boldly into that void is Filippo Ganna. At a strapping 6-foot-4 and 180lbs, the 24-year-old Ineos Grenadiers rider is on the verge of becoming Italy’s next big thing.

Inside Italian circles, Ganna already is a big thing, and gets treated as such in the Italian media, which has already christened him as “Top Ganna.” With his track racing background, and his ever-improving skills against the clock on the road, he is poised for even bigger things in 2021.

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Front and center are the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Ganna will race both the individual time trial, where he will be a gold-medal favorite, as well as the team pursuit, where Italy will be in contention to elbow its way onto the podium against favorites Great Britain, Denmark, and Australia. He might also race the elite men’s road race.

It’s a shame for Ganna that the individual pursuit is no longer an Olympic discipline. Between November 2019 and February 2020, he set the world record in the IP on three occasions, and rode to a new world time of 4 minutes, 1.934 seconds in Berlin, edging ever closer to breaking the four-minute barrier in the individual pursuit.

In many ways, Ganna has a similar motor and build to Taylor Phinney, the now-retired pro who traversed a similar pathway as Ganna, winning junior and U23 time trial and individual pursuit honors before turning pro.

Phinney never got the shot at a gold medal in the IP either — it was discontinued after the 2008 Olympic Games — and the U.S. never had a serious team pursuit program on the men’s side.

Though the IP isn’t on the program in Tokyo, at least Italy will race in the team pursuit with real chances for a medal. In the 2020 Berlin track world championships last February, Italy was third behind Denmark and New Zealand, beating out Australia for bronze.

Following in the footsteps of Fabian Cancellara

Ganna went into pursuit mode for the final 11km of stage 5 of the 2020 Giro d'Italia
Ganna went into pursuit mode for the final 11km of stage 5 of the 2020 Giro d’Italia. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

It’s on the road, however, where fortunes and legends are made.

And that’s where Ganna should emerge as a major force in the coming years.

At 24, he’s already been a pro at the WorldTour level for four seasons, earning his stripes with UAE-Emirates in 2017. After some solid successes, he broke out in 2020. When Tokyo was postponed, that opened the door for Ganna to race the world championships and the rescheduled Giro d’Italia last fall.

He quickly made his mark, winning his first set of stripes in the elite men’s individual time trial, knocking back Wout van Aert by 26 seconds. At the Giro, he was dominant against the clock, donning pink with an opening-day time trial victory in Palermo, and sweeping all three TTs in the corsa rosa.

It’s his attacking panache and all-around abilities that intrigue so many. In stage in the Giro last year, his solo victory over the Cat. 1 Valico di Montescuro (22.7km at 5.7 percent) confirmed he’s more than a one-trick TT pony. Ganna came blasting out of the gates last week, showing no signs of an off-season COVID-19 infection, by winning another breakaway stage in stunning fashion before winning his first TT of 2021.

Ganna can produce huge watts that deflate the competition, be it in the individual pursuit on the track or against the clock on the road. Part of that power is genetics; his father, Marco Ganna, was an Olympic kayaker in the 1980s.

Ganna has been straddling the tightwalk between road and track for the past several years, but after Tokyo, he will firmly commit to road. In fact, his commitment to Tokyo is so strong that La Gazzetta dello Sport reported this week that he will skip a planned start at Paris-Roubaix in April to remain focused on the Olympic Games.

As a winner of the U23 Paris-Roubaix in 2016, many believe Ganna could pick up the mantle from Fabian Cancellara in the northern classics. It was Cancellara’s lethal combination of time trialing and huge power that made him an unstoppable force in the classics, winning three editions each of Roubaix and Tour of Flanders.

Ganna has all the makings of a classics powerhouse. Ineos Grenadiers team boss Dave Brailsford said he’s giving Ganna a clear shot to the Olympics in 2021, but said he will be the cornerstone of the team’s efforts to finally win one of the cobblestone monuments at Flanders or Roubaix.

It’s been more than a generation since the likes of Mario Cipollini, Paolo Bettini, Marco Pantani, and Michele Bartoli were the superstars of the peloton.

If Ganna strikes gold in Tokyo, and roars unbridled into the cobbles next season, Italy will have its new cycling superhero the tifosi is so desperately seeking.

Filippo Ganna at the 2020 Giro d'Italia
Filippo Ganna at the 2020 Giro d’Italia Photo: James Startt