With less than two months to go to the world road race championships in Tuscany, Italian national coach Paolo Bettini has begun to whittle down the names of the riders that will fill the final nine places in the squadra azzurra.
Italy has not won the Elite men's world title since 2008, when the world championships were last held in Italy, in Varese. On that occasion, Bettini announced his sudden and surprise retirement just before the race, and Alessandro Ballan surged away in the final kilometres to win the rainbow jersey, while Damiano Cunego won the sprint for second, with Davide Rebellin taking fourth. Bettini won back to back world titles in 2006 (Salzburg) and 2007 (Stuttgart).
Since that tricolore hat trick, Italian cycling has lost much of its prestige and importance. The national squad has struggled to find a rider like Bettini, who was capable of leading the team and provide consistent results while wearing the distinctive Italian azzurra jersey.
Can Nibali win the rainbow jersey?
Bettini is hoping that Giro d'Italia winner Vincenzo Nibali can lead the team this year and win the world title in Florence. The very hilly finishing circuit suits the aggressive Sicilian but he has only just returned to racing at the Tour of Poland and seems far from his best form.
"I've only spoken to Nibali briefly on the phone but I know what he's been doing to get ready for his return to racing," Bettini told Gazzetta dello Sport recently, trying to play down any speculation that Nibali won't be fit enough to lead Italy at the world championships.
"His post-Giro obligations have caused him some problems but that's normal. He's had to respect come contractual obligations. When we spoke at the end of June he told me was mentally tired and needed a break. I understand it because I've done it myself. He's a bit overweight but that's not a problem. He'll soon lose it in the heat and it's not a massive factor in a one-day race.
Bettini was at the Trofeo Matteotti on the Adriatic coast on Sunday and will attend most of the other summer one-day races in Italy. He will be at the Vuelta a Espana on September 5-6 and then name his team for the world championships on September 9.
"I'll also be watching the riders competing in the WorldTour races so that I get precise info about their form. The Vuelta is important because it’s a perfect launch pad for the Worlds and he best way for a rider to be at his best," Bettini pointed out.
No place for Pozzato on the current long list
Nibali is expected to be backed by Astana teammate and loyal domestique Valerio Agnoli. Also on Bettini's long list are double Giro d'Italia stage winner Giovanni Visconti, Moreno Moser, Enrico Battaglin and Diego Ulissi.
Bettini made it clear that Filippo Pozzato, Damiano Cunego and Ivan Basso will have to get some impressive results if they want force their way into his team for Florence.
"It was good to see the Visconti I know, Moser has matured a lot, Battaglin looked good taking third at Matteotti after a long time off after his Giro crash, while Ulissi showed his form on the first stage at the Tour of Poland," he told Tuttosport.
"Luca Paolini is old but he's a guarantee. Pozzato is in a deep rut and I hope he wakes up sooner or later but he's missed so many opportunities. Words are no longer enough, he's got to get results. For now it's a 'no' to Cunego and Basso. They're not part of the 17-18 names that I've got in my mind but perhaps they'll make me change my mind about them."
Aggressive racing strategy
Bettini said that his Italian team will ride an aggressive race by going in key breaks, rather than trying to control all the moves.
"We'll be aggressive, we'll upset people," he said, hinting that he prefers a team with riders who can win rather than pure domestiques.
"You need hard working riders if you want to control the race but I don’t want to have to chase everyone. I'd rather have some sharp thinking riders who can get in the breaks and be dangerous from far out."