Di Luca for 2007
By Gregor Brown
Guiding the Squadra Azzurra to the gold medal in the 2006 world championships, Italian national coach Franco Ballerini has reason to be happy. After a year of stress and tension following the 2005 world's disaster in Madrid, the former winner of Paris-Roubaix directed the nine-man national squad in Salzburg to victory, resulting in a win for team leader Paolo Bettini.
Saddened when Bettini lost his brother Sauro in a car crash 10 days after the world's, Ballerini, when asked to select his favorite image of 2006, didn't chose Bettini winning in Salzburg but two weeks later in Como. "In [the Giro di] Lombardia, Bettini in the rainbow jersey and crying as he won for his brother. It was a magical moment," recalled the 42 year-old to La Gazzetta dello Sport. "He won that course without even preparing. His head was not there. I repeat: it was magical."
The moment capped off a winning year for Italian riders, said Ballerini. "We won Sanremo, the Giro, worlds, Lombardia. In the north, we were protagonists. And, at the Tour, [Damiano] Cunego, with the white jersey, showed growth as a rider."
Italy may have won the Giro d'Italia with Ivan Basso but it was not without controversy, his alleged involvement in Operación Puerto and doctor Eufemiano Fuentes tainting the win. However, with his case shelved for the time being due to lack of evidence, Basso's victory remains.
Ballerini sees a need to correct the way such of investigations are handled: "I think that the sporting judges have to act quicker than what is normal. A year for a cyclist is like ten for a regular worker. It needs to be severe but with proof of guilt," he said.
On the 2007 world championships in Stuttgart, Ballerini is already focused, and plans to travel to Germany at the end of February to view the parcours, together with other team personnel and some riders. Naturally, he sees Italy with a chance to keep the gold medal - particularly after the comments from one of Bettini's arch rivals. "On paper it does not look easy; 4,000 meters of climbing, and [Erik] Zabel said to me that he could be competitive only if he was at 110 percent."
It could be another year for Paolo Bettini to lead the Italian team or perhaps The Killer, Danilo Di Luca. Ballerini thinks Di Luca has prepared well for a strong year, like the one he had in 2005. "In 2005, he won everything easily.
"He is a optimistic and has a good impact on the public; he is aggressive and a winner," said Ballerini. "He does not have to give up the classics to try to win a Grand Tour. He can race the Ardennes and then go strong in the Giro [one month later - ed.]. In any case, already at the Vuelta a España and world's, it was another Di Luca."