Being Pippo Pozzato

The Italian on Flanders, Roubaix and self-doubt

Had Twitter existed in Fiorenzo Magni's time, it's hard to imagine that he would have been an adherent. And it's even less likely that the Lion of Flanders would have tweeted something like this in the week before a big Classic: "Today I tried my new SEXY SUMMER SHORTS. thanks @champsys #instagram #instashorts #me."

The tweeter, of course, is Filippo Pozzato, and it's tempting to think that he was picturing the reaction of his legions of critics as he added his archly ironic hashtags, just when he was supposed to be quietly putting the finishing touches to his Tour of Flanders preparations. His recent tongue-in-cheek propensity for social media is simply the latest addition to a lengthy rap sheet that has been compiled since his first pedal strokes as a professional. The Italian is vain, we are told. He doesn't train hard enough. He talks too much. He never fulfilled his promise.

Sprawled across a chair in the lobby of the Sandton Hotel in Kortrijk, his Lampre-Merida team's base for the Classics, Pozzato can only roll his eyes with mock resignation at mention of such criticism. The only charge that really stings, it seems, is the last one, perhaps because it's the one that's closest to the truth.

After being fast-tracked from junior level directly into the professional ranks at Mapei, Pozzato was quickly earmarked as a predestinato, and his early professional performances - including overall victory at Tirreno-Adriatico as a 21-year-old - only heightened expectations further. Victory at the 2006 Milan-San Remo apart, however, Pozzato has repeatedly fallen short on the big occasion.

"If I finish second, it's a problem. If somebody else finishes second, they've done well," Pozzato says. "But listen, it's not a problem for me now, I'm used to it at this stage. If you go and look at the last Italians to be up there in the Classics, it's always been me. It's just that I've come against Boonen who beat me at Flanders [2012], Boonen who beat me at Roubaix [2009], Cancellara who beat me at San Remo [2008]."

Pozzato's palmarès is by no means bare - he's also won Het Volk, E3 Harelbeke, a national title and stages at the Tour and the Giro - but it's got as many holes as those mesh summer shorts, and he accepts that he has won far less than he should have done. Near misses have been a constant in Pozzato's career, although the nature of those defeats has changed.

As a youngster, Pozzato was often guilty of the sin of presumption. At the 1998 junior Worlds in Valkenburg, he was the outstanding favourite in a field that included Cancellara, Boonen, Bradley Wiggins and Bernhard Eisel, but was beaten by Ireland's Mark Scanlon in the finishing sprint.

"I was too certain," Pozzato recalls with a laugh. "On the final climb, I saw that I was the strongest but I didn't even attack to try and finish alone, because I told myself I'll beat them in the sprint anyway, this won't be a problem. The national coach Balboni still tells me that I'd have won if I'd really wanted to, but I already thinking about having white shoes to match the rainbow jersey. And it's true - I was thinking about how I was going to get to ride all in white."

By his late 20s, however, Pozzato was losing because he was plagued by doubts. Contrary to his reputation for shooting from the hip, Pozzato is a man with the tendency to second, third and fourth guess himself. And that's often where he's finished in big races. The Geelong Worlds in 2010, he says wistfully, is the one that got away.

"I followed [Philippe] Gilbert every time that he attacked, but the last time that he went, I couldn't go with him because I had a bit of cramp and for me, my Worlds finished there. I was telling myself I'd done a shit Worlds, I wasn't worth shit and I'd made a fool of myself.

"But then we caught Gilbert and suddenly there's a group of 20 riders sprinting for the win. Now I know full well that you need to do this sprint from the front, but in my head, I don't have the legs to do it. So I start the sprint from behind and I quickly see that the others were going backwards. I said to myself, ‘Shit, so the others are tired too.' I came past at twice the speed of the others. If I'd started that sprint four positions further up, I would have won."

Pozzato had touched upon this tendency to over-rationalise in a revealing interview with Daniel Friebe in ProCycling in2009, but rather than serving as a sort of catharsis, his inhibitions have seemed only to calcify in the years since. "My soigneur used to tell me I was too intelligent to be a bike rider," he smiles. "If I'm in the finale of a race and I feel a bit tired in the legs, I'll tell myself that the others are probably going a lot better. But in the end, they're probably just as tired or even more so. And a lot of times I've probably thrown away chances to win because of that."

Pozzato's best chance to win the Tour of Flanders came two years ago, when he found himself in a three-man group with Boonen and Alessandro Ballan after the Paterberg, but opted to stake everything on the sprint. He lost out by half a wheel and faced even rounder criticism than he had during his disastrous Classics campaigns either side of 2012. "But if I went back again I'd do everything the way I did that day," he says. "People said I should have attacked before the final kilometre, but I couldn't because there was a headwind and they would have brought me back."

Only God can judge me

That 2012 season was interrupted when Pozzato was handed a three-month suspension after he admitted to frequenting Dr. Michele Ferrari between 2005 and 2010. Given what the USADA Reasoned Decision told us about Ferrari's doping of riders at US Postal Service, Pozzato's insistence that the consultations amounted to simple training advice was met with scepticism, to say the very least. It was interesting, nonetheless, to see how his response to the ban differed from that of, say, Giovanni Visconti, who dismissed his liaison with Ferrari as an error of youth in a press conference at last year's Giro and was duly applauded by a pair of journalists in the front row.

Pozzato, by contrast, remained defiant, describing Ferrari's training programme as "the best. Everybody knows that," and his truth - if not wholly satisfactory - was an inconvenient one for many in Italian cycling. "Listen, I race with a load of riders and directeurs sportifs who have had long suspensions for heavy acts of doping," he told Cycling Pro in the summer of 2012.

"I was asked if it was true that I had gone there, and I said yes," Pozzato says now of his Ferrari ban. "Did my teams know I was there? Yes. I don't have to hide the fact that I was there because the rule [barring riders from frequenting Ferrari] wasn't there at the time either."

One wonders if Pozzato would have been better served by donning the sackcloth and ashes in the aftermath of the Ferrari revelation, just as his siding with Lance Armstrong against Filippo Simeoni in 2004 or his part in organising the tacit go-slow over Mont Cenis at last year's Giro have hardly helped his reputation or his popularity among some of his peers. "Look, I know that a lot of people don't like me but I'd prefer that than to be fake," Pozzato says. "A lot of people in cycling say 'ciao, ciao' to your face and then call you an asshole behind your back. Why say hello in the first place?"

The tattoo on Pozzato's back famously boasts that only God can judge him - his devotion to ink remains unabated, incidentally, and he recently fielded a phone call from a journalist with a variation on "You'll have to speak up, I'm getting a tattoo done" - and he claims that he is now utterly unconcerned by what the media has to say about him. "I don't even read Gazzetta anymore because they just write whatever they want," he says. "A few years ago journalists went to the press room and watched the race, now they're not even coming to races, so they don't understand what's actually happened."

Fino alla fine

Now 33 years of age, it is tempting to bill Pozzato's 2014 Classics campaign as the last chance saloon, but then that was already the case two years ago, when he briefly joined forces with Luca Scinto at Vini Fantini and together they conjured up that sparkling but unsuccessful showing at the Tour of Flanders.

After that season in exile at Pro Continental level, Pozzato returned to the WorldTour with Lampre-Merida last year but a virus meant that he was never a factor on the cobbles last spring. He salvaged something from the wreckage by re-emerging to win the GP Ouest-France at the end of the summer, but following a low-key start to this year, his true form is something of a mystery as the two most important Sundays of his season draw near.

A string of mechanical problems eliminated him from contention at E3 Harelbeke and he was caught up behind crashes at Gent-Wevelgem two days later, but Pozzato was adamant that he is not lacking in condition. "I've worked hard for the past four months to get to these Classics in the best possible way," he says. "The important thing is to go well and to be in front. I believe in my chances, and let's hope I have a little bit of luck this time too. That never goes astray."

Certainly, he ran out of luck two years ago when he crashed out of contention at Paris-Roubaix, and in an unusual admission of vulnerability from a classics contender, Pozzato confesses that he is averse to taking many of the risks demanded by racing in Belgium, an impediment he expects Bradley Wiggins to share when he lines up at Flanders and Roubaix this year.

"When you're always at the back when you get the climbs or pavé, you have to make twice the effort to get up to the front," he says. "You have to have great legs, better than the others, just to be up there in the finale. I think Wiggins will have the same problem as me, and at Paris-Roubaix, if you don't hit the Arenberg Forest in the first 40 riders, then your race is over there and then."

Peter Sagan, by contrast, has no such hang-ups. "But when he falls, he's going to do some real damage because he takes too many risks," Pozzato warns. "I mean, in 2011 at Roubaix I fell because of him. He came down in front of me and I went over him."

That said, Pozzato is quick to stress that he is a firm admirer of the young Slovak. "I trained in California this winter and when Peter came to Los Angeles for his team presentation, we went for dinner. I even put it on Twitter," Pozzato says, adding of his Classics chances: "He's very strong but it's been two years now that everybody has been talking about him and he hasn't won a big Classic either. Maybe this year he'll go and do it, but it's not easy."

Boonen and Cancellara

There are two compelling reasons why it won't be easy for Sagan to land a monument this year - Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara, the same two roadblocks who have stood in Pozzato's path for much of the past decade. Pozzato raced with Cancellara at Mapei - incidentally, the team where he says he felt the happiest - and with Boonen at QuickStep, when he won Milan-San Remo. Yet although Pozzato emerged at the top level before either man, Boonen and Cancellara have completely out-stripped his own achievements.

"I've come up against Boonen and Cancellara, and it would have been a whole lot easier for me if they weren't there," he says of his Classics record. "These are two guys who will go down in history as two of the strongest riders ever in the classics. When the level is so high, it's hard for everybody else to win."

Pozzato remains close to each of his former teammates - he congratulated Boonen on his 2009 Roubaix victory even before he had secured his own second place finish - but there is a sense that when it comes to the crunch in the classics, he lacks their cutting and their confidence. He speaks almost reverentially of Boonen and Cancellara when he assesses their chances for Sunday. "Tom looks good and thin, so he's going well I reckon, and Fabian is looking strong, I think," he says admiringly.

Asked what circumstances he needs to win the Tour of Flanders on Sunday - his odds are a hefty 71/1 with the local bookmakers - Pozzato is succinct. "The only condition I need is to go strongly," he said. "If you're strong and you don't have mechanical problems or crashes, then you'll be up at the front fighting it out. That's all I need. I mean, two years ago, I could have won Flanders with a really small team."

And if Pozzato found himself at the front with Boonen and Cancellara in the finale, would he back himself or would he be crippled by the usual doubts? "It depends on the situation. Obviously I have faith in myself, but it depends," he says.

But when it comes to his ambitions for De Ronde, for once, Pozzato has no hesitation. He knows time is running out if he wants something more substantial to show for the latter part of his career than an army of social media followers. "I want to win," he says. "I don't just want to be a protagonist or be on the podium. I want to win."

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