Allies of circumstance in the winning move at the Tour of Flanders, Alessandro Ballan (BMC) expects Filippo Pozzato (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia) to have a different approach should the Italian pair find themselves in a similar situation in the finale of Paris-Roubaix on Sunday.
The friends and sometime training partners agreed to work together to try and beat Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) on the run-in to Oudenaarde last weekend, but Ballan admitted that he was surprised that Pozzato opted to stake everything on a head-to-head sprint rather than take it turns to attack Boonen. The Belgian ultimately beat Pozzato in the sprint to claim his third Tour of Flanders victory.
“I didn’t really understand his tactics,” Ballan said in Kortrijk on Thursday. “To beat Boonen we needed to attack him one at a time and look to drop him before the sprint, or at least tire him out before the sprint. Instead, it was just me attacking, and every time Boonen was quick to get onto my wheel.
“We effectively brought him fresh to the last 400 metres, which meant that he was practically unbeatable. I think Pippo was thinking back a couple of years to when he beat Boonen in a sprint at Harelbeke, but Boonen has been really, really strong this year.”
While Pozzato had agreed not to shut down Ballan’s accelerations in the finale, Ballan had expected his fellow countryman to try and counter-attack himself. To illustrate his point, Ballan cited the example of the previous weekend’s Gent-Wevelgem.
“I want to understand just how convinced Pippo was that he could beat Boonen in the sprint because the week before at Gent-Wevelgem, Boonen had won a sprint of 30 riders and Pippo came 9th. I think he should have understood how much stronger Boonen was than him in the sprint.
“I reckon that if we get to the finish in a three-man group like that again this Sunday, Pippo won’t wait until the sprint, he’ll try something beforehand himself too. I think he’s understood this now.”
By his own admission severely limited in the sprint, Ballan wondered if his best chance of classics success this spring had already eluded him when he was unable to slip away from Boonen and Pozzato in the finale of De Ronde. While he managed to put Boonen in difficulty on the Kwaremont and Paterberg last weekend, the absence of such obstacles makes winning Paris-Roubaix a more complicated proposition.
“That’s the nature of Paris-Roubaix, but at the same time in the finale, the pavé can become almost like climbs. If someone doesn’t have the legs anymore, then you can make the difference,” Ballan said. “The wind could be a big factor. If I come out of the pavé alone and I find myself riding into a headwind by myself, but with three behind chasing, then it’s logical that I would struggle to stay away. In any case, if it’s a similar situation to last Sunday, I’d certainly have to try and invent something before the velodrome.”
There is general consensus in the peloton that the absence of Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) due to a broken collarbone will alter the complexion of Paris-Roubaix, but while many are breathing a silent sigh of relief that he will not be on the startline in Compiègne, Ballan said that he for one will miss the Swiss rider’s influence on proceedings.
“Fabian’s characteristics would suit the way I race because he certainly wouldn’t be looking to wait for a sprint with Boonen. He’d be trying to make the race hard and selective,” Ballan said. “Maybe if he had been with the three of us in the finale on Sunday at Flanders, it wouldn’t have ended up in a sprint and it might have suited me better.”
After winning E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders, Tom Boonen is the stand-out favourite for Paris-Roubaix, and Ballan believes that the rebooted 2012 version bears comparison to the Boonen of three or four years ago.
“I remember the Roubaix when I got to the velodrome with him and Cancellara [2008 – ed], and his sprint was remarkable. He gained 20 metres straight away and it was game over, and I think he’s back to those levels,” Ballan said. “He’s already won seven races now too, so there isn’t any burden on him to chase results. He has a very strong team, and he can start off calmly because he has already done his bit.”
While Ballan’s classics challenge unfolds on the cobbles of northern Europe, south of the Alps the legal proceedings surrounding the Mantova-based investigation into alleged doping practices at his former Lampre team continue to fester in the background.
In both 2010 and 2011, Ballan was temporarily pulled from racing by his BMC team due to his implication in the inquiry, and it is understood that a judge will decide in the next three months if Ballan and up to 31 others should face charges relating to their contact with the Mariana Mantovana pharmacist Guido Nigrelli.
“It’s a never-ending story, I don’t want to think about it,” Ballan said. “I want to think about the race and the victory, and if the victory arrives, enjoy it.”
For now, however, Andy Rihs’ team is content to let Ballan lead the line at the classics, in spite of the news emanating from Mantova in the week before the Tour of Flanders, a period that was made all the more trying by the sudden death of his father-in-law.
“The team has always supported me. I have to thank them,” Ballan said. “They’ve always been in my favour. It’s absurd that it’s been going on for three years.
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.