Italian ready for Harelbeke battle
While Philippe Gilbert held court with the press at Kortrijk's Hotel Broel on Thursday afternoon, his BMC teammate Alessandro Ballan was discreetly setting about preparing for a short training ride.
The quiet man of BMC's classics line-up flew in from Italy on Thursday morning and took the opportunity to turn his legs over for an hour or so in solitude on roads that would be filled with the tumult of E3 Harelbeke scarcely 24 hours later.
Remarkably, the team is still on the hunt for its maiden victory of the season, but Ballan was adamant that there was no tension in the camp on the eve of battle. "No, at the moment, I don't feel any pressure," he told Cyclingnews. "It's logical that people might have expected more but I think that you need time to make sure that everybody has a good understanding between them, plus we've also had a lot of misfortune with crashes and illness. We just need a bit of patience."
In spite of the rainbow bands on his sleeves and the Tour of Flanders title on his palmares, Ballan has perhaps never seemed wholly comfortable in the skin of an outright leader. The 33-year-old, who has previously acknowledged that the rainbow jersey had proved too much of a burden, has long appeared happy to serve as a foil to others, and he had no qualms about welcoming Thor Hushovd and Philippe Gilbert into the fold during the off-season.
"I'm happier to have them in the team, it actually gives me a bit more space," he admitted. "In the finale of a race, where people are watching them closely, I can have more of a chance to get away."
The biggest victory of Ballan's career, the 2008 world championships in Varese was a case in point, as he powered clear in the finale while his azzurri teammates policed affairs behind.
"That Italian team had Bettini, Cunego and Rebellin in it, and I was the one who was able to win," Ballan recalled with a smile. "So I was happy when I learned about Philippe and Hushovd's arrival. Of course, there are races where I will have to work for them, but there'll also be moments where I can pick up the result.
At Harelbeke, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, BMC's collective force will be pitted against the rather singular talent of Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan), whose displays at Strade Bianche and Milan-San Remo have marked him out as the man to beat on the cobbles this spring.
"Cancellara is very strong but maybe he's missing out a little bit in terms of his team," Ballan mused. "Both ourselves and Omega Pharma-QuickStep can take him on in this way."
Ballan also reckons that his friend Filippo Pozzato's chances might be dented more by the relative inexperience of his Farnese Vini-Selle Italia squad than by the broken collarbone he sustained at the Tour of Qatar.
"He has a few teammates who have never done the classics and he might be at a bit of a disadvantage from this point of view, but he certainly has the class to show his worth."
Ballan's build-up to the 2012 classics has been strikingly similar to that of twelve months ago: an early start at the Tour Down Under, a solid showing at Strade Bianche and a top ten finish at Milan-San Remo. While last year's 4th place was a cause for jubilation after a troubled two seasons, Ballan came away palpably frustrated this time around.
"To be honest, I was a bit disappointed with my performance on the Poggio," he said ruefully. "I was going very well near the front but I got myself shut in and I wasn't able to go with the best – not because I didn't have the legs but because I wasn't alert enough.
"That said, I think the race was a bit strange. We went hard on the flat but went up the climbs quite slowly. I think there could have been a bit more selection, it would have suited my characteristics."
The 2007 Tour of Flanders winner lines up at both E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem this weekend, but not surprisingly is more confident of making an impact in the former.
"Gent-Wevelgem has usually been a race where you get 40 or 50 riders together in the finale, so it's not best-suited to my characteristics. But I've been second one year behind Tom Boonen in Harelbeke . It's a hard race and I'm thinking more of that."
From there, all minds will turn to the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. In each of the past two seasons, however, developments regarding Ballan's implication in the Mantova-based doping investigation surrounding his former Lampre team and pharmacist Guido Nigrelli have emerged in early April and cast a pall over his cobbled classics campaign.
Ballan has twice been suspended and then restored to the roster by his BMC team as a result of reports linking him to an inquiry that seems to splutter back into life intermittently with the menace of a semi-dormant volcano. It remains to be seen if and when the eruption arrives.
"I've always thought about riding my bike. The team has confidence in me and when I get on my bike, I only think about riding," said Ballan quietly, as he clipped into his pedals and set off into the early afternoon sunshine.
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