Thousands attend Franco Ballerini's funeral in Tuscany
A reported five thousand people attended Franco Ballerini's funeral in Casalguidi in Tuscany on Tuesday afternoon.
The two-time Paris-Roubaix winner and highly successful Italian national coach died on Sunday morning following a car accident during a car rally he was competing in as a navigator.
A huge poster depicting Ballerini as he retired from racing after completing his final Paris-Roubaix in 2001 adorned the church.
Many of the Italian riders competing at the Tour of Qatar wanted to abandon the race and return to Italy for Ballerini's funeral; they were convinced to stay but emotionally remembered Ballerini, revealing he was far more than just a coach and former team mate.
"As well as being my national coach for five years, he was also a friend. He'd call me to ask how I was but also to ask about my family and we talked about everything. I've lost a friend," said the 2008 road world champion (pictured below).
"I'll always remember the smile on his face after me and Bettini won our world titles. I'm just happy I was able to win him his last world title.
"He always managed to create a special atmosphere in the team at the world championships. We were all rivals in other races but on the day of the world championships, thanks to him, it was all for one and one for all."
The current Italian national champion heard about Ballerini's death prior to the team time trial at the Tour of Qatar on Sunday and rode with black tape on his arm. He stood at the front of the Tour of Qatar peloton when a minute's silence was held before stage two on Monday.
"It's difficult to think that he's not alive. Me, Ballan and some of the other Italians who had been part of the Italian world teams wanted to go home to attend the funeral but [former national coach] Alfredo Martini convinced us to stay in Qatar."
"I've got so many memories of Franco. He was at Mapei when I turned professional with them when I was just 18. In 2001 we rode Ghent-Wevelgem together, then when he became national coach we had a special relationship.
"I only rode the time trial in the 2002 worlds in Zolder when Cipollini won but he insisted I stayed on to see how the road race team worked. I was also in the team when Paolo [Bettini] won at the Athens Olympics and when he and won his two world titles. We had a lot of great moments together."
Liquigas sprinter Daniele Bennati, like Ballerini, comes from Tuscany and had a personal link to Ballerini and his family.
"Franco was far more than a coach for me, he was a friend and he and his wife were the official witnesses at my wedding," he told Cyclingnews.
"It's difficult to express what I feel. I would have liked to have been in Italy to attend his funeral rather than be in Qatar. It would have been right to say one last goodbye but I'll never forget him."
"He was an extraordinary person, someone you could always rely on and ask him advice. Everybody liked him and admired him. He was on of us. It's a huge loss."
The organisers of the Tirreno-Adriatico stage race have announced this year's event will be held in memory of Ballerini with the second stage expected to cover many of Ballerini's training roads near Pistoia and Montecatini Terme. Full details of the route will be announced on February 16.
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