Giro d'Italia feature, May 17, 2005
A look at Danilo Di Luca's year so far...
If Danilo Di Luca were to call an early end to his season after the spring classics, many would say he's had an incredible year - but to follow up his wins at Amstel Gold Race and La Fleche Wallonne, Di Luca currently leads the Giro d'Italia, easily the most consistent rider so far.
The Liquigas gun also leads the Pro Tour standings as a result of his great performances, donning the white outfit with plenty of pride. Over the last three weeks, the only time Di Luca hasn't been dressed in white on a bike is when he's been wearing the maglia rosa - something he's becoming very fond of.
Touted as a great hope for the Liquigas team at their launch earlier this year, Di Luca has been quick to praise their efforts - following his Fleche Wallonne win he said; "My team did a great job. It was only when we all arrived together at the foot of the last climb that I thought of winning. This morning, I was actually more focused on Liège-Bastogne-Liège!" It's been more of the same during the Giro, with his team setting up a strong push in the last 50km of most stages, and Di Luca hasn't disappointed, finding the strength to hold off most contenders but never doing anything to harm his chances overall.
Happy days after a disappointing 2004
It may seem like Di Luca's stellar 2005 performances come after a promising buildup in preceding years, but that's definitely not the case - quite the opposite, in fact. Riding for the Saeco Macchine per Caffe team, 2004 wasn't one of Di Luca's best years - "I was feeling good at the start of the year. I was fourth in Amstel, second in Flèche, but then I was sick before Liege-Bastogne-Liege so I couldn't start. After that, my team wasn't accepted for the Tour, I wasn't in the national team for the World's and the Olympic Games, so it was really bad for me." A large part of that 'bad' 2004 was being 'uninvited' to the Tour de France after finding himself part of an audio recording with Dr Carlo Santuccione about new performance-enhancing drugs. Italian police took possession of the recording and Di Luca was subsequently omitted from le Tour.
His non-selection for the Italian Worlds team had a little to do with this incident and a lot to do with the dilemma facing manager Franco Ballerini; with so much depth in Italian cycling, who would he select as team leader (in accordance with his selection philosophy)? He decided against Di Luca, even though he is a proven classics rider. With only a third placing to the Italians, some would say Di Luca's inclusion would have made the difference - for Di Luca it just added to the disappointment of the year. It was a similar situation in relation to Olympic team selection, although the result in Athens (Bettini winning gold) dampened any claims made in support of Di Luca's inclusion.
It was a very bitter pill to swallow after winning five races in 2003 (plus a third place in Amstel Gold) and a strong classics campaign overall; Di Luca was an integral part of Claudio Corti's plans for 2004. He was clearly ambitious for success in '04, stating at the team's launch early in the year - "I can't put things off any longer, I've just got to win a World Cup race." He didn't get that wish until 2005 (albeit as part of the Pro Tour), and he'd be the first to tell you 2004 was a year to forget for such a talented rider with plenty of ambition.
Before the Giro, however, it was in the latter spring classics where Di Luca started to shine in 2005. He had been racing (and winning) Pais Vasco during the Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix, and exploded into the 'Classics' limelight at Amstel Gold, a race he's traditionally performed very well in. A second in last year's edition of Fleche Wallonne was disappointing. "I think the biggest difference between me and Rebellin was confidence," said Di Luca afterwards, the comment summing up his year. After the merging of Lampre and Saeco to produce Lampre-Caffitta, Di Luca decided a change was in order, moving to Liquigas-Bianchi. This served him well as Liquigas offered a greater focus on the classics - with Magnus Backstedt their great hope for the cobbled battles, they wanted a rider to step up in the latter half of the campaign; Di Luca was the man for the job.
Team play reaping results
The 29-year-old has a strong team around him in 2005, with Stefano Garzelli, Dario David Cioni and Dario Andriotto, all capable of top 10 individual performances, willing and able to help if Di Luca has the goods for an overall Giro podium finish. With the departure of Mario Cipollini to retirement, the team has been able to focus on one area (Di Luca's GC aspirations) rather than juggling a couple of race objectives simultaneously. They're not as visible as the silver train of Fassa Bortolo, but during a stage they work hard to ensure Di Luca's in with a chance come the pointy end of that stage.
This could be seen on stage 5 last Thursday, when a relatively tough stage was managed perfectly by the Liquigas riders, putting Di Luca in an excellent position to take the stage win and race lead near his hometown. His confidence was at a peak, and the memories of 2004 seemed to have left him; "My comeback this year really started when I went to Mexico. I asked the team if I could go and they supported me. There are some really good people here and I really feel like a leader." And it shows in the way he's racing - being in the right position most of the time, much like the racecraft of a certain Texan who loves riding through France each July.
Obviously the trip to Mexico was important, and seems to have worked - Di Luca had stated before this year's Tirreno-Adriatico: "Long hard training in Toluca (Mexico) is producing good results and my form is alright. However, I've been far from races for too long and I can't be a key rider all of a sudden. I hope to reach top form in the period starting with the Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco, up to the Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège." We've seen, then, that Liquigas' management allowing him to undertake this training is important to him, and their faith has been rewarded. Performing well at these races was his goal; he's certainly achieved it and has decided to extend that objective to the Giro - let's see how much further he can go as the Giro rolls along to the big climbs, where the overall result will most likely be won or lost.