Alessandro Ballan plots for Ronde defence

Alessandro Ballan will line up in the 92nd Ronde van Vlaanderen with dossard number one to mark him...

An interview with Alessandro Ballan, April 6, 2008

Alessandro Ballan will line up in the 92nd Ronde van Vlaanderen with dossard number one to mark him out as returning champion. Last year, the 28-year-old Italian from Castelfranco Veneto bolted free with Leif Hoste and went on to out-gun the Belgian in the sprint. Once again, Team Lampre's Ballan will count on his team to battle the Belgian and other rivals to do what few have managed, win De Ronde back-to-back.

Coming off as a conservative rider, Ballan has the strength to get himself to the line and packs a mean kick when he arrives there. In addition to winning the Ronde van Vlaanderen last year, he won the Driedaagse De Panne and Hamburg Cyclassics, while also helping his captains in the Tour de France and World Championships. All and all, Ballan is a contender for Sunday's race and knows his rivals well.

"Cancellara is going very well," he stated when Cyclingnews spoke with him on the eve of the Ronde van Vlaanderen. "He has demonstrated to be very strong up until now. He has the desire to win, even if there is rain."

Cyclingnewsquestioned the top players regarding the possibility bad weather, and Belgian Leif Hoste took a dig at Ballan' training partner, Filippo Pozzato. "Pozzato? He will be wondering whether to get his shoes dirty or not," commented Hoste. Ballan laughed, "It's true, it's true! He does not go at his best in the rain," he continued, but reminded us, "at Het Volk last year he showed he could go very strong and was able to win."

"Unfortunately, [Hoste] crashed in the first stage [of De Panne] and so I have not had a chance to see him up close. He went really strong in the time trial, he knows [Ronde] very well, he lives in his area; surely, he will be up front for the finale," he summarised of the rider who has finished second in 2007, 2006 and 2004.

However, the number one favourite, according to the odd-makers, is two-time winner Tom Boonen. "Like everyone says, Tom has won less with respect to the last years; however, he can very well vie for the win. He has a strong team that is full of experience – all for him – he is one of the top favourites for the win."

Reconnaissance

Ballan is admittedly very familiar with the route's final three of 17 climbs – the Eikenmolen (km 239), Muur - Kapelmuur (km 249) and Bosberg (km 252) – but he has take the opportunity to re-familiarise himself with the rest of the course. "I went over the route after Brabantse Pijl and after De Panne. I know the route well." (For more information read 2008 Ronde's hellingen guide.)

He expressed where he though the key moves might come, "If there is bad weather, we will see the first key moves on the first sections of pavé – the long ones – like Paddestraat [2400m at km 149] and the one after [Kergate, 300m at km 162], after that, the true selection will be made following the Koppenberg [km 195 - ed.]."

Much of the race, around 210 kilometres, will have already been played out by the time the Italians are able to watch on public provider, Rai3. "I think it is late because all the most beautiful points come earlier, starting with the first sections of pavé, the Kwaremont..." commented Ballan, whose wife and daughter will be watching from home. "At three o'clock, when the race is shown live, there will already be some riders up the road and the selection already made."

His brother and two uncles will be in Flanders to watch their favourite rider. "They will see the start, and then [watch the race pass] in five or six spots. ... They have a Belgian fan that leads the way for them."

Lampre support

Ballan is arguably weakened by the departure of Daniele Bennati and Enrico Franzoi from Team Lampre. For 2008 he will rely on a mixture of youth and experience to wear dossard numbers two through eight. "Two are young; there is [Marco] Bandiera, who is in his first year as a professional. Above all, he is here to gain experience and to give me a hand in the first part of the race. [Simon] Spilak: he is young but he showed to be very strong at De Panne and Harelbeke [E3 Prijs - ed.]; he will stay next to me and come into play more towards the end."

The experience comes from other Italians. "[Fabio] Baldato and [Paolo] Fornaciari: they have helped me so much in the north and are very, very useful."

"[Danilo] Napolitano will be called upon at the start, trying to enter into the escapes, along with [Christian] Murro. It will be the same for [Massimiliano] Mori. If they don't get into an escape they will stay near me to protect me up until the climbs begin [km 99]," he predicted.

"It will be important to keep in check the strong teams: Lotto, Quick Step, CSC... If they have someone in the escape then we have to have someone there as well."

Will you win tomorrow? "I am well, and I hope. To win is always hard."

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