By Gregor Brown in Harelbeke
Alessandro Ballan is handling the pressure of Ronde van Vlaanderen defending champion. The 28 year-old Italian from Castelfranco Veneto rocketed to fame, especially in Belgium, when he won the Monument last year, but he displayed a very calm demeanour only one week before he is set to defend his title.
"Today, is a little bit of training, and then using Three Days of De Panne for Flanders," explained Ballan to Cyclingnews in Harelbeke, at the start of the E3 Prijs. He went on to finish 38th at 4'15", and looks forward to De Panne, April 1 to 3. The race, which he won last year on the eve of his Ronde successes, should provide the final polish to his already shiny form.
"It is logical that there is more pressure from the public now, also from the team," Ballan continued while being mobbed by Flemish fans shouting his name.
He spoke about Team Lampre for 2008. "There is no longer [Daniele] Bennati, who kept me covered. I am the only leader, and there is more pressure. This year it is different; regarding sprinters we have [Danilo] Napolitano. We have the experience of [Fabio] Baldato and [Paolo] Fornaciari, and the young riders, who don't have experience here in Belgium, but go strong. It's not a bad team."
Ballan confirmed his key man in the Classics. "Baldato is the key guy for these roads."
Just one week prior he was using the best of his form gathered in Tirreno-Adriatico to have a go in Milano-Sanremo. Ballan made the move of 16 that was formed under the impudence of Davide Rebellin's attacks on the Poggio, but he could not contend with the Fabian Cancellara attack at two kilometres remaining.
"I tried to take the wheel of Cancellara. I pulled the chase to bring him back after he escaped in the finale, but he was going very strong. He deserved [the win] because he was so strong. We made a mistake not getting on his wheel immediately after he attacked."
If any year was the year for Ballan to win the Sanremo, 2008 was it. The race was ripe with attacking riders to snuff the sprinters, but there was perhaps one too many attackers. "You have to have the legs there period. Cancellara showed that he had them," he noted. "I was hoping to do something, but arriving at the finish, I don't know. I put in a lot of my energy on the Poggio."
He was happy to be in Belgium, exchanging the smooth switch-back climbs of Italy for the cobbled ones. "The Poggio is longer, and less harder; Here the climbs are harder and steeper, and with pavé... So it is completely different. They suit me."
Ballan will race in Three Days of De Panne, April 1-3, defend his title in Ronde van Vlaanderen, April 6, and make another run in Paris-Roubaix, April 13.