Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) was the hugely impressive winner of Saturday’s Montepaschi Strade Bianche, but his two Italian dauphins in Siena also declared themselves to be pleased with their outing in Tuscany. Alessandro Ballan (BMC) repeated his second-place finish of 2008, the year of his world title victory, while Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) came home in third on his first appearance in the event.
Ballan put up the stiffest resistance to Gilbert’s pressing on the last uphill stretch in Siena’s narrow streets, although an error on the final corner into Piazza del Campo effectively ended his challenge. Nonetheless, coming on the back of solid displays at the Santos Tour Down Under and the Giro di Sardegna, Ballan felt that his performance augurs well for the weeks ahead.
“When Gilbert attacked, first I tried to recover and then to pass him, but I didn’t manage it,” Ballan told Gazzetta dello Sport. “To win would have been great, but I’m happy with this too: in comparison to the past two years, I feel like another man.”
Ballan has endured lean times since taking the rainbow jersey in Varese three seasons ago, and reached his lowest ebb last spring when his BMC team sidelined him for his part in a Mantova-based anti-doping investigation. Although later cleared by an internal team investigation, the Italian struggled for form throughout 2010, but a solid winter has seen him start this season with renewed confidence.
“I’ve changed a lot, if not everything,” Ballan said. “I consider this second place as a confirmation that I’ve recovered my faith, conviction and, above all, my legs.”
Damiano Cunego was fulsome in his praise of the winner Gilbert, and admitted that there was little to be done against the Belgian on that form.
“In the last kilometre, Gilbert went stronger, he had more than everybody,” Cunego told Gazzetta dello Sport. “He destroyed a group of twenty riders.”
Cunego was initially distanced on the final sharp climb through the streets of Siena, but he recovered well as the road levelled out again towards the Piazza del Campo and he was within touching distance of Gilbert and Ballan at the finish.
“I consider it an honourable and brave placing,” Cunego said. “It was my first Strade Bianche and I rode it well, thanks also to the work of my teammates, who controlled the break and set-up the finale.”
The 2004 Giro d’Italia winner also complained about the security risks posed by racing without the use of radio earpieces, although he admitted that from a racing standpoint, it was not a wholly negative experience.
“Without radios, it was an adventure,” he said. “It’s advantageous in some ways, because you talk more with the team, but detrimental in others, because at one point there was an ambulance coming against us. Luckily we saw it in time.”