For the third year in succession, the Mantova-based doping investigation is casting a pall over Alessandro Ballan's classics campaign, but the BMC rider was a starter at the Tour of Flanders nonetheless and duly went on to finish the race in third place behind winner Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) and fellow countryman Filippo Pozzato (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia).
On Wednesday, lagazzettadimantova.it reported that Ballan was one of 32 people who may face charges after being named in the final report made by the public prosecutor in the Mantova investigation, which centres on the activities of pharmacist Guido Nigrelli and Ballan's former Lampre team in 2008 and 2009. It was a trying few days in more ways than one for Ballan, whose father-in-law died suddenly during the week.
"I was very concentrated in spite of everything," Ballan said in Oudenaarde on Sunday. "I started as leader after three years of being a protagonist at Flanders without being in the top ten. I have to say that I'm happy with the podium place, but at the same time there's obviously a bit of regret that I didn't win."
Ballan denied that the ongoing ruminations of the Mantova case had affected his preparation during the week. In both 2010 and 2011, BMC pulled him for racing due to his implication in the inquiry before returning him to the roster shortly afterwards on each occasion. This time around, manager Jim Ochowicz said that the team would take no action against Ballan unless requested to do so by "an appropriate authority."
"I just think about riding and the team has faith in me. Besides, this week, I had other things to think about," Ballan said.
Now in his third season at the BMC squad, the former world champion found himself thrust into the role of outright leader for De Ronde after Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd struggled in the build-up to the race. "It's the first time that I started as leader here for three years and I showed my value," said Ballan.
Although prominent in the finale last season, Sunday marked Ballan's best outing in Flanders since his victory in the race five years ago. He sparked the winning move on the third of three ascensions of the Oude Kwaremont, bringing Boonen and Pozzato with him. On the day's final climb, the Paterberg, the Italian pair came close to dropping Boonen, who admitted afterwards that he had had problems with his gears.
"The intention was to go the last time on the Kwaremont, as I did, and then Boonen and Pippo came across near the summit," Ballan explained. "I was hoping that Tom would get dropped on the Paterberg as he was the quickest in the sprint, but instead he managed to stay within 10 metres of us."
The slowest of the leading trio on paper, Ballan had little choice but to try and force his way clear on the flat run-in to Oudenaarde, but he was aware that he lacked the explosiveness necessary to surprise Boonen. "I tried in the finale, but Boonen took my wheel every time I tried to get away. He has a much better jump than me."
Pozzato revealed afterwards that he had agreed not to chase Ballan when he attacked in the finale. The Italian pair both hail from the Veneto region and enjoy a bond beyond that goes beyond any rivalry on the bike, with Pozzato attending Ballan's father-in-law's funeral during the week.
"It's nice that Pippo was close to me in such a time of mourning," Ballan said. "It's logical that friends are friends, but in races we're always rivals. Today he didn't race against me, it was always Boonen who chased me down. I'm happy that we both did a good race, but it's just a pity that once again a classic win has escaped an Italian."
Damiano Cunego, another man named in the Mantova report, was the last Italian to triumph in a classic, at the Tour of Lombardy in 2008. Ballan is aiming to end that unhappy streak at Paris-Roubaix next weekend, in spite of the gathering clouds over his repeated implication in the Mantova case.
"At Roubaix last year I was 6th and if it hadn't been for the early break, I would have been second behind Cancellara. I was up with him and Hushovd. I had a great condition and I think I'm going better this year."
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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.