The odd couple of Filippo Pozzato and Luca Scinto have provided one of the most compelling storylines of the season to date, and their union came within inches of a fairytale ending at the Tour of Flanders on Sunday, as Pozzato narrowly missed out to Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) in the sprint.
Standing outside the Farnese Vini-Selle Italia team bus after the race, Scinto had the air of a man who had been jilted at the altar and then forced to attend the runaway bride’s new nuptials. All around him in Oudenaarde’s market square, swathes of boisterous Flemish fans were spilling out of the bars and blinking into the late afternoon sunshine, merrily toasting Tommeke’s latest triumph.
“Today Pippo was the strongest,” Scinto told Cyclingnews, his voice raw. “Chapeau to QuickStep, which is a great team, a great équipe, with some big riders and a big champion like Boonen, but today the strongest rider at Flanders was Pippo. If it was a boxing ring, he would have won on points.”
Even races of 255 kilometres can ultimately hinge on a few short seconds of action, and for Scinto, the crucial moment came towards the summit of the Paterberg, the final helling of the race. Pozzato led Alessandro Ballan (BMC) and Boonen up the climb, and when the gradient stiffened to 20% near the top, the Belgian began to lose contact.
“It’s a pity that the Paterberg wasn’t twenty metres longer, Boonen was on the limit,” Scinto said, shaking his head at the memory. “With those extra twenty metres, if he’d managed to drop Boonen, it would have been a very different race.”
Instead, Boonen managed to hang tough and stay within striking distance of Ballan’s rear wheel as they crested the summit of the short climb. The two Italians reached a tacit agreement to work against Boonen in the finale, but when it all came down to a three-man sprint in Oudenaarde, there was an air of inevitability about the outcome.
“Look, beating Boonen in the sprint is very difficult,” Scinto said. “It’s a second place that hurts. We’re not happy with this second place because it hurts.
“I’m happy for the lads because of how well they rode, but coming second at Flanders… Ok, a great Boonen won it, but seeing how well Pippo went today, then there’s certainly a bit of regret.”
Twelve months ago, Pozzato was marooned in an unhappy marriage at Katusha and as he turned 30, it appeared as though his was a classics career that had been frittered away. His transformation under Scinto’s tutelage since has been striking, all the more so because Pozzato, the purported playboy, scarcely seemed a natural fit for the passionate Tuscan’s more robust style when the signing was first announced.
The pair struck a quick rapport and the alliance was cemented still further when Pozzato broke his collarbone at the Tour of Qatar in February, yet returned to racing at the Trofeo Laigueglia barely a week after undergoing surgery.
“I think this boy should be applauded. I’m not saying he’s a hero, because heroes don’t exist anymore, but he is a gladiator,” Scinto said of Pozzato. “45 days ago, he had a broken collarbone and was under general anaesthetic. He fought, they said we were mad, but we knew what work we had to do and where we had to go. Today he showed that he’s not spoiled like other people say, but a rider with real attributes.”
Pozzato tempered his steel for De Ronde by entering into the thick of the action as early as Dwars Door Vlaanderen last week, a far cry from his more relaxed approach to races outside the monuments last season.
“I expected him to be as strong as he was today because we had done San Remo, Waregem, Harelbeke and Gent,” Scinto said. “Racing in Belgian is hard, it’s stressful. At the end of Gent-Wevelgem he was tired but it was those four races that allowed him to find such an incredible rhythm coming in here.”
As aggressive Euro-pop boomed from all four corners of the square and the festitivies continued all around him, a disconsolate Scinto was left to mull over Pozzato’s near-miss and the crash that obstructed Oscar Gatto in the finale. But then the terrible beauty of the classics is that almost everyone bar the winner comes away harbouring regrets of some form or another, and at least Scinto and Pozzato have the chance to dream it up all over again ahead of Paris-Roubaix next week.