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Filippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida) chasing on the Paterberg
Italian hopes for turn in fortune at Paris-Roubaix
The tattoo on his back says that only God will judge him, but Filippo Pozzato is aware that most of the cycling world has an opinion on him, too. "I'm used to criticism," he sighs as he leans against a barrier in the mixed zone at the Paris-Roubaix team presentation in Compiègne.
After a mixed start to life at Lampre-Merida that saw early joy at the Trofeo Laigueglia give way to insipid showings at Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders, Pozzato arrives in northern France desperately seeking a result.
If Pozzato's own condition is a mystery, Fabian Cancellara's emphatic win at the Tour of Flanders has led many contenders to rate their prospects to be as glum as the slate grey skies over Compiègne on Saturday afternoon. Call it defiance or delusion, but Pozzato is determined to find a ray of light.
"I think it's possible to beat Cancellara because I'm convinced that he's not as strong as he was two years ago," Pozzato said. "He's suffering more and even if you look at Flanders last Sunday, he attacked on the last climb, so it's not like he's attacking from 60km to go. Maybe the level is a bit lower now so he's still able to make the difference, but I don't think he's unbeatable."
The buzzword all week has been anticipation. Directeurs sportifs have earnestly trotted out the same old line about sending riders up the road before Cancellara decides to open the throttle, but - perhaps typically - Pozzato begs to differ.
"Everyone's talking about anticipating, but it's hard to imagine that Cance will let certain riders just go up the road," he said. "It's obvious that you'll just have to follow him when he hits the front, although I think he's going to wait for the finale, going on how he raced on Sunday. I don't know if I'm talking rubbish here or not, but maybe he can't allow himself to attack from 60km to go.
"In any case, the real race begins at Arenberg and from there on, you weigh up who's still in front. You see how many riders Fabian has around him, see how many Sky riders are up there, and you also start to look in the faces of the other riders to see how they really are."
It's put to Pozzato that things went a little badly for him at the Tour of Flanders and he interrupts good-naturedly, "I'd say things went very badly." The Sandrigo native languished in a lowly 44th and the momentum he had in the opening weeks of the campaign seems to have frozen to a shuddering halt in northern Europe.
"I had a really very bad day last week and I'm still at a loss how to explain it," Pozzato said. "For the two weeks before Flanders I wasn't super. Some people have been saying it's because of the cold but it's the same for everybody and I usually go pretty well in the cold too. I just hope it's a parenthesis. I hope I'm better tomorrow, otherwise I'm in dire straits."
In his first Classics campaign since serving a three-month ban for frequenting Dr. Michele Ferrari - only for training plans, he told the Italian Olympic Committee - the stakes for Pozzato to perform are even higher than usual. Aside from last year, when he enjoyed a brief purple patch with Luca Scinto's Farnese Vini-Selle Italia outfit, Pozzato's spring campaigns since 2009 have been on a decidedly downward trend and his sole monument win remains the 2006 Milan-San Remo.
Twelve months ago, Pozzato's Paris-Roubaix dreams were ground into the dust at Orchies when his wheels slipped from under him shortly after Tom Boonen had launched his winning move. After his second place in 2009, Pozzato has unfinished business with the race.
"Yeah," he says with a laugh. "The account is still open alright but I need to settle one sooner or later, don't I?"