By Gregor Brown
Italian National director sportif Franco Ballerini envisions a bright year for the Italians; conquering the pavé and Grand Tours, as well has cultivating its youth. "We are at a level to perform better than 2006," said the Tuscan to Luigi Perna of La Gazzetta dello Sport.
It has been five years since an Italian has finished the Tour of Flanders first, and even longer, nine years, since an Italian has taken the Maillot Jaune of the Tour de France. Ballerini thinks that with riders like Alessandro Ballan (Lampre-Fondital) and Ivan Basso (Discovery Channel) 2007 could be the year for his country.
"In the north on the pavé we are able to grasp the victories that we miss. We are protagonists - now Ballan, [Daniele] Bennati and also [Filippo] Pozzato are ready," he noted to the Italian news paper.
"In the Giro d'Italia I see youth, like Basso and [Damiano] Cunego, as favourites, even if [Gilberto] Simoni, who is older, is still ripe. And the Tour, which can finally return to the tricolore [Italy's colours - ed.], with Ivan."
Not forgetting the current World Champion Paolo Bettini, Ballerini continued, "he has the head to make the difference, you saw this in [the Giro di] Lombardia. Also [Alessandro] Petacchi can return to claim sprints; he has to remain calm and chase away the ghosts."
Youth will also be in Italy's corner with rider like Riccardo Riccò (Saunier Duval-Prodir), Davide Viganò and Alessandro Proni (Quick-Step), Dario Cataldo, Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) and Francesco Gavazzi (Lampre-Fondital). Italy kicks off its season with the GP Costa degli Etruschi this Saturday, February 10.