By Tim Maloney, European Editor
Before last week's Three Days of De Panne, Alessandro Ballan wasn't on anyone's radar. But the lanky 25 year-old from Castelfranco, Italy was the surprise winner of stage one of the Belgian semi-classic stage race and made a superb solo attack in Sunday's Tour of Flanders with 50 km to, eventually drawing out the race favourites, who caught the Italian 37 km before the finish in Meerbeke. Ballan stayed in the break and ended up sixth in Flanders, one of the monuments of cycling.
Ballan is a long, lean rider (1.90 m, 69 kg) who looks more like a climber than a classics man, showing flashes of the combative style of now retired Italian classics star Michele Bartoli. After a decent career as an amateur, Ballan wasn't much sought after by pro teams at the end of 2003, even though he had four wins, but he had some help from his friends. Andrea Gastaldello of Lampre team bike sponsor Wilier Triestina, knew Ballan well and sent his rider resume to Lampre team manager Beppe Saronni. Ballan ended up with a pro contract for 2004 at Lampre, spending much of his time working for Vainsteins and Bortolami, although he did have several top 20 finishes last year in Belgian semi-classics.
Nicknamed "Bontempino" (little Bontempi, because of his resemblance to team diesse Guido Bontempi), the talented young Italian is positive about the rest of his Northern classics campaign. "I'm feeling good and I think I've showed that I have good form in the last few races," he said. "My main objective now is to finish the week well, even if Paris-Roubaix isn't really my kind of race. Above all, I'm still a team rider and I have a chance to show what I can do in these (Northern) races, but for the rest of the season I'll go back to being a team rider."