Franco Ballerini will be remembered with a special prize at this year's Paris-Roubaix. Race organisers ASO have decided that a cobble stone trophy will be awarded to the first Italian rider at the finish in the Roubaix velodrome, as a way of remembering Ballerini after his death in a car rally accident on February 7.
Ballerini loved riding Paris-Roubaix and personified everything that is special about the race. He only won ten races during his professional career but he won Paris-Roubaix twice, in 1995 and 1998. He also finished second in 1993, after a famous battle with Gilbert Duclos-Lasalle, and was third, fifth and sixth on other occasions.
When he retired in 2001, Paris-Roubaix was his last major race and despite only finishing 32nd, he got a standing ovation and an emotional cheer in the Roubaix velodrome when he unzipped his jersey to reveal a t-shirt saying 'Merci Roubaix'. He was a real 'Monsieur Roubaix'.
At the team presentation on Saturday it was as Ballerini was still alive and somewhere in the crowd. He was always easy to spot because of his long sideburns and smart looking Italian clothes. He was always friendly and happy to talk. And a smile would fill his face with pride whenever someone recalled his victories at Paris-Roubaix and he'd love to discuss which riders were on form and possible tactics for the race.
The special Souvenir Ballerini prize will be a good way to remember him. Filippo Pozzato told Cyclingnews that he hopes to be the first Italian into the velodrome and so collect the special cobblestone.
"I hope to win it because it's a great way of remember Franco," Pozzato said. "Unfortunately it's all we've got to remember him. He taught me how to ride on the pave and I just hope I can put it to good use in the race."