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Alessandro Ballan (BMC) at the finish
Italian ignores accusations to ride Hell of the North
If Alessandro Ballan’s preparations for Paris-Roubaix were overshadowed by allegations of blood doping by an Italian judge, it certainly didn’t affect his performance. The BMC rider was one of the select few able to live with Fabian Cancellara’s searing acceleration on the cobbles at Mons-en-Pévèle and he eventually finished sixth in the Roubaix velodrome.
Anti-doping investigators in Mantova are set to ask for charges to be placed against 32 people in relation to an inquiry centred around Ballan’s former Lampre team, and Corriere della Sera carried a report on Saturday in which prosecutor Antonino Condorelli suggested that the Italian had undergone a blood transfusion in Montichiari in 2009.
On crossing the finish line, Ballan must have known that he would face a barrage of questions, but nonetheless he stopped to speak to Italian state broadcaster RAI, and a huddle of reporters duly swarmed around him.
The first question was perhaps a loaded one, as he was asked for his thoughts on a “strange race,” but Ballan resolutely played a straight bat.
“There was never a moment to relax and unfortunately it benefited the escapees. I think I gave a great performance behind with Cancellara and Hushovd. The result didn’t reward me, I think I deserved a place on the podium, but so be it.”
That first hurdle cleared, the conversation turned to the details of the race itself. Namely, the moment after the pavé at Ennevelin, when Ballan found himself thirty seconds down on the winning break in the company of Fabian Cancellara and Thor Hushovd. With teammates still up the road, neither Ballan nor Hushovd were willing to work with the Swiss rider, and he soon relented in his pursuit, gesticulating his frustration at the riders on his wheel.
“It was simply a question of team tactics,” Ballan explained. “I had [Manuel] Quinziato in front and Hushovd had a teammate [eventual race winner Johan Van Summeren] up there too. Unfortunately, Cancellara was stronger, as he showed in the finale by going away alone on the flat.”
Nonetheless, Ballan felt that he was the best of the rest behind Cancellara. After the Swiss rider powered away in sole pursuit of Van Summeren and the remnants of the break in the closing kilometres, Ballan too clipped off alone to finish alone in sixth place, 36 seconds down on Van Summeren.
“Cancellara’s attack with three kilometres to go was a surprise,” he said. “Hushovd was on his wheel, I thought he would have closed him down, but instead he swung over. I tried, but by then it was too late.”
Once the television cameras stopped rolling, the remainder of the journalists present gathered closer around Ballan, and again there was a tentative effort to steer matters back to the trouble brewing in Mantova. Had that affected Ballan’s state of mind before the race?
“I only thought of the race, I had nothing else in my mind,” he said flatly. Next question.
Bizarrely, that question came from left field, as Ballan was asked for his two cents on the radio earpiece debate that has rumbled on all spring. He dutifully stated his own reservations about their influence on tactics, but underlined the necessity of warning riders of dangers on the road.
The shadow boxing continued with a query about his crashes during the race. The dust-covered Ballan wore the battle scars of his afternoon in hell, with scrapes visible on his right arm, and he explained that he had fallen twice, the second time in the closing stages.
“I fell in the last 15km,” he said. “I took a corner too quickly and I fell against a barrier.”
In spite of those crashes, however, Ballan appeared glad to have been back in the race after missing out on last year’s Paris-Roubaix, even if this was clearly the kind of limelight the softly-spoken Italian would sooner have done without, although the questioning could hardly be described as severe.
Twelve months ago, he was pulled from BMC’s Paris-Roubaix roster on the eve of the race after being named as part of the Mantova investigation. Given the reports emanating from Italy this weekend regarding the very same inquiry, was he not concerned that his employers would take the same course of action this time around?
“No comment,” Ballan said to Cyclingnews, and rolled off towards the Roubaix showers.