BMC Racing's Alessandro Ballan believes that his recent solid showing at the Santos Tour Down Under is an encouraging sign of his form as he attempts to put two difficult seasons behind him.
The Italian’s 2010 campaign was marred by his part in the Mantova-based police investigation into doping, while he admitted that the burden of the rainbow jersey affected his 2009 season.
“It was the first time that I went to the Tour Down Under and I really liked it, both for training and as a race,” Ballan told Cyclingnews. “In terms of my performance, well, I was one of the few riders in the top 15 who wasn’t a sprinter. So I have to say that I’m pleased with my preparation up to this point, even if the weather at home hadn’t been ideal.
“I think I’m on the right path. I got those results in the Tour Down Under without great stress and above all I’m working well.”
Ballan was under considerably more stress in early 2010. After leaving Lampre for BMC, he admits that he was already struggling to adapt to his new set-up when he was sidelined for his part in an anti-doping investigation in Mantova in April. Ballan’s relationship with pharmacist Guido Nigrelli came under scrutiny and he was withdrawn from racing by BMC ahead of Paris-Roubaix, before being cleared by an internal team investigation in May.
“Last year I paid for the change of teams, after six years at Lampre where I knew everything,” Ballan confessed. “Here, I had language problems and there were very few people I knew and few Italians, so it was very hard for me.
“I lost my morale at the beginning of last season when I wasn’t at 100 percent and then again when the Mantova inquiry was taking place. It was a hard time. I just tried to get through it but it wasn’t easy. In cycling you need a free mind to think only about training and racing. Getting on the bike with a clear head makes a big difference. But now I’m happy, and very happy with the team and its ambitions, and now my mind is focused on results on the bike.”
While BMC sidelined Ballan and his teammate Mauro Santambrogio during the investigation, his former team Lampre selected Alessandro Petacchi for both the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España in spite of his implication in an inquiry by Padova-based prosecutor Benedetto Roberti.
Ballan feels that Lampre’s ProTour status allowed them to field Petacchi without fear of repercussion, in contrast to the then-ProContinental BMC, who were reliant on invitations to cycling’s major events. Nonetheless, Lampre successfully retained its ProTeam licence for 2011.
“It was decision on the team’s part that I respect because at the end of the day they had to protect themselves in order to take part in races, because we weren’t in the ProTour,” he said. “A team like Lampre didn’t have that problem so they didn’t stop their riders.
“However, I always kept my team informed of everything and in the end they returned me to competition. Of course, there was worry in my mind in that period and it had an effect on my progress during the year.”
Ballan’s truncated 2010 came on the back of a disappointing year in the rainbow jersey and he admitted that the demands of his title had a significant impact on his preparation.
“My life changed with that jersey,” he said. “I had a lot of appointments, a lot of stress, I was being pulled left and right. I thought I could do everything but instead I discovered it’s not like that. Cycling is a very hard sport and you have to be focused on training and on the bike.”
2011: the classics and a Giro debut
Ballan is currently training in Italy and will focus on the Italian calendar in the build-up to the classics. His next race will be the Trofeo Laigueglia, and he will continue with the Tour of Sardinia, Giro del Friuli, Strade Bianche and Tirreno-Adriatico.
As ever, three classics figure high on his list of objectives. While the Tour of Flanders is his favourite race (which he won in 2007) and he believes Paris-Roubaix to be the most prestigious classic, Ballan will also be hoping to eke out an opportunity at Milan-San Remo.
“Because it’s just before the cobbled classics, my condition at Milan-San Remo should already be good,” Ballan told Cyclingnews. “It’s true that in the last few years, fast riders have always won but now since the addition of the climb of Le Manie [in 2008], I think that people with my characteristics have more of a chance of aiming for the win. Obviously it’s not easy but it’s still a beautiful dream, so we’ll try.
In my ideal race, it would be hard from Le Manie, a little like what happened last year but I wasn’t at 100 percent and I got dropped on the end of the Cipressa. But a finale like that, with 20-25 riders on the Poggio and then a final attack, maybe by finding a few collaborators on the descent of the Poggio, something like what Pozzato did in 2006. That would be my ideal San Remo.”
The 31-year-old Ballan will also make a long-overdue Giro d’Italia debut in 2011, and his hopes are high of taking a stage win.
“It’s my eighth year as a professional and it’s my first Giro, because at Lampre, it was always a race for Cunego while I did the classics and then rested up afterwards,” he explained. “I’ve done five Tours de France, but I’ve always wanted to do a Giro. For an Italian rider it means a lot.
“There’s a stage on the Strade Bianche like the one that Cadel Evans won last year that might be suited to my characteristics, but I’m also a rider who has always shown that after two weeks I can still go well on the Grand Tours. So even if it’s difficult I could win a stage from a long break, even in the mountains, like I did at the Vuelta in 2008.”
Ballan is also hopeful for the future of Italian cycling, even if the country has just two teams in the World Tour.
“In Italy a lot of big riders have been caught [doping] and undoubtedly sponsors are finding it difficult to trust cycling,” he said. “Let’s hope that some other sponsors beyond Lampre and Liquigas want to get involved at a high level because we already have a lot of smaller teams that are strong, such as ISD.”
For now, however, Ballan is focused simply on picking up his first victory since 2009, something which he believes would serve as a liberation.
“Certainly it would mean a lot, especially to convince myself that I am back to my old levels,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of work in the past two years that perhaps hasn’t been rewarded. It would also mean a lot to the BMC team that has faith in me and big ambitions for me.”