Veteran Italian wins in Ghent
The sprint would ultimately prove a formality, but after three and a half years without a win, Luca Paolini (Katusha) was leaving nothing to chance when he reached the finishing straight of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in the company of Stijn Vandenbergh (Omega Pharma-QuickStep).
Paolini had not won since the Coppa Bernocchi in 2009, and the intervening period had seen the impulsive instincts of youth give way to the knowing inhibitions of a veteran. Though much the quicker sprinter by reputation, Paolini paid his former teammate Vandenbergh due deference in the finale of Het Nieuwsblad, carefully manoeuvring him into first position with 500 metres to go and then opening his sprint from distance.
"To be honest, I was afraid he would attack because I was tired, but then I could see that he was really very tired, too," said Paolini. "I rode with Stijn at Katusha in 2010, and I knew that I was quicker than him on paper, but it was still a relief to cross the line first."
Paolini had endured a number of near misses during his fallow period, but he said that the nadir arrived at the GP Prato at the tail end of last season. "I lost the sprint there to Emanuele Sella even though I'm a much quicker rider than him," Paolini said. "I lost because I was too sure of winning, and I waited too long to start my sprint. That's why I went from around 300 metres out here."
The 36-year-old was a surprise winner at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, all the more so given his low-key start to the season, but Paolini said that he had benefited from being an outsider. While pre-race favourites such as Lars Boom, Tom Boonen and Filippo Pozzato were caught in the tactical stalemate behind when the winning move came together over the top of the Varent, Paolini was present and correct after riding aggressively on the climb.
"The favourites watched one another or look to impress one another, but I just looked at my own race. I didn't think about Boonen or Pozzato or anyone else," Pozzato said. "I'm usually an outsider, but sometimes I can find yourself in a position to win."
In a winning break with riders of the calibre of Geraint Thomas (Sky), Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) and Maarten Wynants (Blanco), Paolini understood that he needed to choose his moment carefully. When Vandenbergh motored on the front shortly after the cobbles at Lippenhovestraat with 25km to race, Paolini jumped smartly across to his wheel.
"I think it was a victory for experience because I just kept positioning myself at the front, I managed myself well. Vandenbergh was stronger than me when it was just the two of us in front, but I knew that I had to hold his wheel because I was faster than him.
"It was very, very cold today alright, but I think I managed pretty well. It's another area where experience told."
As a young rider at Mapei and QuickStep, Paolini was regularly touted as the man to inherit the mantle from his leader Paolo Bettini as Italy's foremost Classics rider, but in spite of podium finishes at Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders in 2006 and 2007, respectively, he has never consistently scaled those heights.
Years of service as a deluxe domestique, first for Bettini and later for Filippo Pozzato, have given Paolini a wealth of experience in the Classics but perhaps stunted his own progress.
"My character is such that when I have a teammate stronger than me, I work for him," he said. "I was in a team with Paolo, and it came naturally to me to work for him. It was the same with Pozzato, too, I could see the class that he had.
"I'm going well now because Katusha believes in me and allows me to prepare well for these races. This is a big step for me and shows that I can still be competitive in these races, and I think I'm on for a good Tour of Flanders."
Paolini's development at the highest level was also interrupted by a three-year hiatus from the ProTour between 2008 and 2010, when he left Liquigas for Acqua & Sapone. That transfer came in the wake of his implication in the Operazione Athena doping investigation, which also involved Eddy Mazzoleni and Ivan Basso's sister Elisa, although proceedings against Paolini were eventually dropped in 2011 due to a lack of evidence.
Asked to make a statement regarding his own credibility and that of cycling at large, Paolini said wearily: "We're at the avant-garde of the fight against doping in cycling. I don't see what else new you can say about it."