Ballan battles Belgians to win De Ronde

An interview with Alessandro Ballan, April 9, 2007

While he wasn't high on the list of possible winners leading into the Ronde van Vlaanderen, after taking victory at the Belgian Spring Classic Alessandro Ballan will be a marked man in the ProTour peloton. Cyclingnews' Gregor Brown was at the winner's post-race press conference, and caught up with the rider he'd only interviewed two days earlier.

Alessandro Ballan succeeded in doing what no Italian has done since 'The Gladiator', Andrea Tafi, did in 2002: he won the monumental Spring Classic Ronde van Vlaanderen. The 27 year-old, who finished sixth and fifth at the event in 2005 and 2006 respectively, bolted away from the likes of Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara and Paolo Bettini on the Muur. He travelled the final 16 kilometres to Meerbeke with only Leif Hoste (Predictor-Lotto) for company.

"The sprint was tough: Hoste put me in front for the last one and a half kilometres," explained Ballan, clearly content with the victory.

Hoste forced Ballan to work in the closing metres before he attacked with just 150 metres remaining. "He started with a great advantage," explained the Italian. "He went strong but I kept it going. I had a hard time holding onto his wheel but then I was able to come around."

Ballan has far less experience on the Northern pavé than his Belgian rivals, but he let his legs make up for the fact that he grew up in Italy. "I felt a little bit behind on the Muur and then I started moving up," he explained. "It worked out well and I was able to make my move: I saw that Boonen was in difficulty."

He paid respect to the Belgium-based Quick-Step team and he noted that it had ridden strong for its captain. "Tom had a strong team that was always up front. And, with Cancellara's attack I knew it was going to be difficult," continued the Lampre-Fondital rider. "However, we still had [my teammate Enrico] Franzoi up front, so it worked to my advantage."

The race came all together before the first of the day's final two climbs, the Muur and Bosberg. Ballan established the gap and Hosted bridged across, and then the two rode free over the final climb. "We decide to go all out," he explained. "In a sense, I was covered because I had [Daniele] Bennati behind. But the chase was always there at around 15 seconds, it was close.

"Bennati really helped out," he continued. "He helped me for the first escapes and I was able to remain calm. He stayed with me on the Muur, so then, when I attacked, I was covered from behind."

Ballan will now be considered a favourite for next Sunday's Paris-Roubaix. He finished third in 2006 but explained he prefers the hellingen of Flanders to the pavé sectors of France.

He thinks the past two winners of Roubaix will once again be the riders to watch on Sunday. "I think Boonen and Cancellara will go strong at Roubaix," he explained. "Surely, we will see Fabian [Cancellara] up front after how strong we saw him go today.

"I think I am also a contender in other types of races, like at the worlds, Tour stages...," he said. "I don't know who I would be compared with, maybe with Michele Bartoli [Italian Classics star from the late 1990s - ed.]. Although, he went stronger on the climbs than I do."

Ballan turned professional in 2004 and considered it a late start. "Now, I feel I am at my top," the delighted rider said. "Two years ago, when I finished sixth, I started thinking a lot about this race, and the Classics in general. I knew I could compete and one day win this race. It is a wonderful race: I grew up watching these races on TV in Italy."

He dedicated the victory to his family, including his wife and daughter who were watching on TV in Italy. "The win goes to my family, they really helped me out in the last few weeks," he noted. "I thought of them a lot in this race. I also thought of my dad, who died ten years ago, he still follows me from above."

Read Gregor Brown's interview with Ballan, Back to winning form, done two days prior to his Ronde win or the review of his Wilier Le Roi bicycle, Ballan's Belgian machine.

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