Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Is an Italian Renaissance Near?

As we approach the Giro d'Italia, our minds wander to the heights of the Dolomites, the strade bianche of Toscana, and the hills of Trento. We count many great Italian classics specialists among our favorite, including Paolo Bettini's with his attacking style and Damiano Cunego's with his constant (attempts at) re-definition of himself. Indeed, the 2002-2008 period could be seen as the Golden Era of Italian cycling, during which they won many classics and world championships.

In the Rise of Nations article we pondered the fate of Italian cycling, and we ask, is there a crisis just beneath the surface? Who shall take the mantle of Paolo Bettini as King of the Classics?
Rise of Nations: Italy's monuments and worlds wins over the years.
Who are the young guns who we think will show their potential this year?

Diego Ulissi is still a youngster at 22, and his palmarés shows promise. He won the Road Worlds Junior Men's race (not to be confused with the U23 race) twice in a row in 2006 and 2007, and last year he won a stage of the Giro d'Italia at the cost of an angry Giovanni Visconti. "It may have been a fluke," you might say, but we counter this with an examination of his fuller record at cycling-archives. While 2010 was spent riding lesser races, 2011 saw him finish second in a stage of Paris-Nice to a strong Thomas Voeckler who escaped on the treacherous descent. Of course, this was followed by his Giro stage win. Finally, Ulissi also won the bunch sprint behind the winners of Tour de Suisse's climbing stage, showing endurance in what was a power-sapping finale.

Whether Ulissi end up being a GC rider or a one-day specialist remains to be seen, and we have a feeling that while Lampre is eager for results, they are not pressuring him to define himself so early. We are eager to see Ulissi give a shot at being the classics champion that Michele Bartoli and Paolo Bettini were. Teammate Damiano Cunego, himself a winner of one edition of Amstel Gold and three editions of Giro di Lombardia, seems an agreeable mentor. Lampre-ISD has committed to bringing both Michele Scarponi for the GC battle, and Damiano Cunego to steal a stage or two. Given Ulissi's versatility we're sure he'll be on the roster, too.

Speaking of team roster, Ulissi's greatest lost may have been the departure of manager Giuseppe Martinelli to Astana. Martinelli was at the helm of some of Cunego's wins (and also of the late Marco Pantani, the now-retired Stefano Garzeli, and the retired Gilberto Simoni). After only a few seasons at Astana his riders have won two editions of Liège (2010 with Vinokourov and 2012 with Maxim Iglinsky) and one edition of Flèche Wallonne (2012 with Enrico Gasparotto). At the same time, we acknowledge that Martinelli is a complex character with a complicated history, so there is no telling what impact his departure will have on Lampre-ISD. Surely a team of Lampre-ISD's caliber will find a good replacement.

Photo by Gianluca Gozzoli. Some rights reserved, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

While Giovanni Visconti is no longer a proper youngster, his move to superteam Movistar means that he has showings at the biggest races instead of being confined mostly to bella Italia. He was personally recruited by Paolo Bettini to be his protégé at QuickStep, but he ended up moving to ISD-Neri a second-division team upon Bettini's retirement. With ISD-Neri his riding opportunities were limited, although he did get used to winning. Now with Movistar he is guaranteed admission to the top races, although the presence of Alejandro Valverde may mean Visconti is expected to be a super-domestique.

Sacha Modolo, Andrea Guardini, and Elia Viviani are three up-and-coming sprinters on opposing teams: 24-year old Modolo on Colnago-CSF, 22-year old Guardini on Farnese-Vini, and 22-year old Viviani on Liquigas-Cannondale. Each has a slightly different characteristic as a rider, and different challenges with respect to their sporting prospects.

Between the three of them, we are hopeful that Italy will find the next sprinter to follow the footsteps of now-retired Mario Cipollini and now-aging Alessandro Petacchi.

Out of the three, Modolo has the most proven result: he finished 4th in the 2010 Milan-Sanremo, his first. He has also started two editions of Giro d'Italia in 2010 and 2011, even though he finished neither. Given that the Giro has added more and more unreasonable climbing in the last few editions, we are not surprised.

As pointed out on CQRankings and The Inner Ring, Guardini has raced a great many kilometers this year. Given that his team Farnese-Vini (what's in a name?) has few opportunities to shine, the Giro d'Italia is his big show for the year and he needs a lot of racing miles to make sure he's in good shape. He's won many times, notably in Tour de Langkawi, an early season race that serves as good preparation for teams not rich enough to be invited to Tours of Qatar and Oman. Last year the team didn't start Guardini in the Giro due to unsuitable terrain in the early part of the race. This year will prove to be different.

Like Guardini, Viviani started his career on the track and up until last year was still quite active on the velodrome. By virtue of riding for a top-tier team Liquigas-Cannondale, Viviani can have access to races that neither Modolo nor Guardini may get invites to. However, being in a big established team means that Viviani has had to fight to be the designated team leader in many races. It shows clearly on his palmares that many of his wins so far are in races in faraway lands such as Mumbai, Cuba, Turkey, and China. But it is worth noting that he has won the last two editions of GP Costa degli Etruschi, and important season opener in Italy.

The bad news for Viviani is that his team is committed to the Giro GC battle, what with both Ivan Basso and Vicenzo Nibali showing up to the line. This means that his showing at the Giro will be postponed. At the same time, his investment on the track means that he may still have some space in which to define himself as an athlete, whether he will go into road racing full-time or keep one foot on the track so to speak.

Interestingly, teammate Eros Capecchi is on the Giro roster. At 25, Capecchi has distinguished himself with a stage win in last year's Giro, plus a win in GP Lugano against the likes of Damiano Cunego this year. His teams seem to like to bring him to the grand tours, but could he be Italy's next great classics star?

As far as sprinters go, their chances at winning a classic is limited. But they serve a very important role for Team Italia, which is to try and win world championships, which almost always feature a circuit race. London 2012 may be too near for these young sprinters and coach Paolo Bettini may have to rely on Alessandro Petacchi - today arguably the top sprinter of Italy.

What do you think of the state of Italian cycling, who do you think are the emerging talents?

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