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In a race where the final climb of the Cauberg is expected to be the ultimate arbiter, and with particularly compelling arguments anticipated from Spain and Belgium, a youthful Italian team may struggle to produce the kind of answers needed to secure victory at the UCI Road World Championships on Sunday.
Yet even when they come more in hope than expectation, the Italians always travel to the Worlds in numbers, and a sizeable media presence gathered in Maastricht's rather soulless Forum district for the squadra azzurra's final press conference. Team manager Paolo Bettini admitted that without a reliably explosive puncheur in its ranks, his men will have to seek to upset the agenda rather than dictate it, a change from their traditional role.
"We're living a different situation," Bettini acknowledged. "In other years, we had a very specific task to do, we were working to bring the right man to the right place, and then he would make his move. This year, it's a different national team, where we have six debutants. They have to go out and enjoy themselves."
The worlds are always a very serious business in Italy, and Bettini quickly elaborated on what he meant, lest the polemica spark into life even before Monday morning's newspapers hit the stands. "Enjoying themselves means entering into the action in the knowledge that that there are other teams carrying the responsibility of keeping the race together until the foot of the Cauberg," he said. "We have different responsibilities and different opportunities."
The inexperienced make-up of the team is due in part to the recent Italian federation directive barring riders under investigation for doping from selection, and president Renato Di Rocco reiterated his new stance, which prohibits many of the biggest names of the Italian gruppo of the past decade from riding at the worlds. "We will continue with in this direction," he said.
The Italian team will thus be led by Vincenzo Nibali, who has enjoyed his best classics campaign to date this season, with podium finishes at both Milan-San Remo and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. While the Sicilian has the diesel engine necessary to win races in excess of 250 kilometres, he freely acknowledged that his lack of top-end speed will inhibit his chances against the likes of Philippe Gilbert and Joaquim Rodriguez on the Cauberg.
"My limitation is that I'm not quick," said Nibali, whose eagerness to attack from distance has proved a mixed blessing in the classics. "If I feel good, I'll certainly try and put in a good attack, although in a race like this, you need to wait a little bit and not make any mistakes. After 250km your strength is a little bit limited so you can't afford to get anything wrong."
Although the contenders are all familiar with the Cauberg from riding Amstel Gold Race over the years, Nibali believes that a circuit race like the worlds always constitutes something of an unknown.
"A classic like Liège or Amstel is very different because you would already know it well beforehand," he said. "You know where it gets harder near the end, and you know where you need to be in front. At the Worlds it's different because we don't really know the route as well. We only really know the Cauberg but there are other factors. I mean, there's a lot of wind on the course too, and we don't know if it will pick up or not."
Nibali and his teammates will reconnoitre the opening section from the start in Maastricht to the Valkenburg finishing circuit on Friday morning. "The race won't be easy, even at the beginning," Nibali warned. "The roads are twisting and they aren't the widest."
While youngsters Diego Ulissi and Moreno Moser have been touted by Bettini as two riders who will enjoy a certain degree of freedom on Sunday, Nibali believes that the in-form Oscar Gatto may be the Italian best-suited to contesting a sprint in the event that a sizeable group remains intact after the final climb of the Cauberg.
"For the finale, the more of us there are, the better it is," Nibali said. "Maybe I can try to attack, but then if one of the other guys is still there with me, then I could be the key for him. Gatto has shown that he's going very well and he's in form, and Luca Paolini's been riding well too."
Bettini also confirmed his line-up for Sunday's race, with Giacomo Nizzolo and Eros Capecchi left on the sidelines as reserves. Nibali, Ulissi, Moser, Gatto and Paolini will be joined by Dario Cataldo, Rinaldo Nocentini, Matteo Trentin and Marco Marcato in the nine-man team.