An interview with Alessandro Ballan, April 12, 2008
After placing fourth in the Ronde van Vlaanderen and making the mix in the mid-week Gent-Wevelgem, Italian Alessandro Ballan has turned his focus on Sunday's Paris-Roubaix. Gregor Brown of Cyclingnews met with the Italian after he finished his reconnaissance ride of the parcours in northern France to discover that the 'Queen of Classics' has taken on a new importance in the 28 year-old's eyes.
Team Lampre's Ballan was eager to repeat his 2007 Ronde van Vlaanderen victory last Sunday; however, Quick Step played a better card by having Stijn Devolder solo up the road for the final 25 kilometres. The move left the rider from Castelfranco Veneto with little options, being marked by the Belgian Champion's team-mates and the stronghold of Rabobank.
He fought back and instead of going home to relax like he did mid-week in 2007, Ballan stayed with the team in its hotel in Belgium and raced Wednesday's Gent-Wevelgem. The second time up the Kemmelberg he showed his form was still at its peak when he topped the climb first, with Rabobank's Juan Antonio Flecha; the duo tried to pull off an escape group, but once again, the power of Rabobank was unstoppable.
It just could be that Ballan's mind is on victory in Roubaix's velodrome. As we spoke after the Méignies sector – just one week following our Ronde interview – his desire to conquer France's beast became clear.
I rode "three hours today, it went well," he said, two days before the race. "I did three sectors before the Forest [of Arenberg] and, afterwards, the other five or six; so we did about ten in total."
The weather was overcast, but dry. We spoke of the high possibility of rain for Sunday, which he did not welcome. "If it remains like this – nice and dry – it won't be a problem. I hope it remains like this; otherwise, there will be a lot of mud. A wet Roubaix becomes dangerous for everyone... it is better that the course is dry."
Last year – when the weather was like a summer day at the Tour de France – Ballan made the group of favourites but compromised his chances with a crash at 40 kilometres remaining. The conditions are preferred over the mud that has characterised past victories, like Johan Museeuw in 2002.
"Right now, there is not really mud, in fact there is starting to be a little bit of dust. I hope it does not rain." (Later on in the day, storms briefly rolled through. The temperatures for the race are expected to be between 4° and 9°C - ed.)
Ballan's ride on Friday wrapped up his reconnaissance and he will only take in a small ride on Saturday, near the team's hotel in Saint-Witz. "I will ride an hour, an hour and a half tomorrow, going easy to recuperate, and then the race is Sunday," he continued.
What about the last week?
Ballan had indicated that his hopes were high on a repeat of Ronde van Vlaanderen, and even though he didn't top the podium in Meerbeke he did manage to come away from that race – and Gent-Wevelgem – with reassurance that his form is where it needs to be.
"The condition is very good," he noted. "I am happy with how I have gone up until now. I think I am at the same level as last year more or less. Last year, I won the Tour of Flanders and this year I arrived fourth, so you can't always win, but the condition is there. I hope to have a good Roubaix by remaining concentrated."
He stayed in Belgium, lining up in Deinze for the mid-week Classic Gent-Wevelgem. "I rode Gent-Wevelgem, whereas last year I returned home, therefore I am expecting a good Roubaix this year."
He revealed a change in focus for the super-week of Classics. "Up until last year, I believed the Flanders was more of my race. However, now that I have won it my eyes have turned to Roubaix – it's logical. There are only a few riders who have won Flanders and Roubaix."
Ballan first rode Paris-Roubaix in his debut year, 2004, and went on to make the podium in 2006. He noted how he wants to become another one of those rare riders with a Ronde/Roubaix double in his palmarès.
"Yeah, the last one was [Tom] Boonen, he even won them in the same year [2005 - ed.]. The Paris-Roubaix is a race that everyone in the world knows and so it would be great to add my name to the annals of this race."
Even if the weather may not work in Ballan's favour, he hopes to see the race with a small group of riders after the Trouée d'Arenberg, with 91 kilometres remaining to race.
"I hope that there is a good selection right from the start, after the first sectors of pavé, so we won't be in a huge group when we take on the forest – fifty or sixty riders, not more, otherwise it becomes a big problem."
Following Arenberg, there are still some serious sectors for Ballan to cover before he can even consider winning in the Velodrome. He will face the Mons-en-Pévèle and l'Arbre, 17 sectors in total before the finish.
"We can make a good selection following the Forest. A group of around twenty riders that can go on towards the finish. From there we can make the last selection for the finale."
Ballan eyes will search out the best past to arrive in Roubaix's velodrome in a group that is manageable and one that he can conquer in a sprint. If not, expect to see the tall Italian launch solo down the road as he searches to make it into the race's annals.
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