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It wasn't until 2003 that Mario Cipollini beat
2002 world champion picks Freire, Gilbert and Cavendish as favourites
Mario Cipollini has questioned the strength and form of the Italian team for the world championships, suggesting that new Italian coach Paolo Bettini has opted to select riders he knows and trusts rather than riders who are on form.
Cipollini won the world title in Zolder in 2002, beating Robbie McEwen and Erik Zabel, and still considers it one of the best moments of his extraordinary 17-year career as a professional.
"The world championships is a very special race but I'm not sure if Italy has a good chance of winning this year," he told Cyclingnews.
"I'm not criticising Bettini because I think he's a good national coach and the right person to take Franco Ballerini's place. But looking at the riders he's chosen for the Italian team, they seem to be people he knows really well, rather than riders who are on form and best suited to the course in Melbourne.
"The Italian cycling team looks like the Italian football team Marcello Lippi selected for the World Cup in South Africa. He went for the older players and avoided the younger players who could have caused him some problems. But because of that Italy had a poor World Cup.
"I just hope it doesn't end up the same way in Australia. I'm not sure if Marzio Bruseghin is fit enough this year to ride on the front for three laps like he's done in the past.
"He could be the Fabio Cannavaro of the Italian team, who had a nightmare World Cup because he wasn't competitive. And what has Andrea Tonti done this year? He's a nice lad but is he one of the strongest riders we've got? I don’t think so.
"Paolo seems to have gone for the easy option, while in the past Alfredo Martini managed to get the likes of Francesco Moser and Beppe Saronni to work together and win the world title."
Cipollini says he would have selected Liquigas-Doimo sprinter Daniele Bennati in case the race ends in a sprint. He named Philippe Gilbert, Oscar Freire and Mark Cavendish as his favourites to win the rainbow jersey.
"Nobody really knows what the course will be like. I've heard that it will be as hard as the Tour of Flanders but the world championships is always a pretty controlled race," he said.
"I'm sure Mark Cavendish is going there thinking he can win it and so Bettini should have selected a sprinter too. Daniele Bennati seemed on form at the Vuelta, so he should have been included in the Italian team.
"I hope [Filippo] Pozzato, [Giovanni] Visconti or [Vincenzo] Nibali can step up and win but I'd put money on either Freire or Gilbert pulling on the rainbow jersey. Freire was hiding at the Vuelta but he's at his most dangerous when he's hiding because it means he's working on his form and serious about his big objective. Gilbert looks good and has proved he knows how to win big races by going on the attack and in a sprint."
Cipollini retired in 2005 before making a comeback with the controversial Rock Racing team in 2008. He rode the Tour of California but retired again when team owner Michael Ball refused to back his plans for a European-based team.
Cipollini has since begun to produce his own line of MCipollini bikes and will continue to supply bikes to the ISD-Neri team in 2011 captained by Italian national champion Giovanni Visconti. He has also created a line of clothing that was recently on show at Eurobike.