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Ballan solos to cycling's famed rainbow jersey

By Gregor Brown in Varese

Alessandro Ballan topped off Italy's supremacy in the final of the 2008 World Championships Sunday to take the rainbow jersey solo, ahead of teammate Damiano Cunego and Denmark's Matti Breschel. The victory on home soil adds to a small – but impressive – list of wins by the 28-year-old that includes the Ronde van Vlaanderen.

"I did not expect this; I knew was going strong but to win the Worlds is always difficult. ... I imagined when I took that turn in to the track that I would be wearing the rainbow jersey," Ballan said in a post race press conference. The famous blue, red, black, yellow and blue stripes of the World Champion's jersey rewarded his solo gamble. It is a gift that is worthy of a rider who often dedicates himself to others.

In addition to his 2007 Ronde van Vlaanderen win, Ballan won the Driedaagse De Panne and Hamburg Cyclassics in the same year. This spring he missed out on the big win in Paris-Roubaix, where he finished third, but showed that he was back on target in the fall with a stage win and one day in the maillot oro at the Vuelta a España.

Ballan was not the rider chosen as the leader of the Italian team. He dedicated himself instead to helping Paolo Bettini taking a record third-straight World title in what was to be the defending champion's final race in a 12-year career. After the peloton captured the day's three-man move, a second and decisive move formed under the impetus of the new World Champion.

Ballan bolted to the front on the second half of the Ronchi climb in the penultimate circuit – with 21 kilometres left of the 260.2-kilometre race. He took with him Belgium's Greg Van Avermaet, Matti Breschel (Denmark), Spain's Joaquím Rodríguez and Germany's Fabian Wegmann. The move gained importance with the addition of Ballan's teammates – Davide Rebellin and Cunego – Dutchman Robert Gesink, Austrian Christian Pfannberger and Ukraine's Andriy Grivko.

Rebellin kicked into action on the final time up Ronchi. He was marked and Ballan countered. Rebellin went again and then Cunego tried as well. The actions weakened their rivals for the final blow.

"We all started the race for Paolo Bettini ... Last night, we did not have a second strategy – the plan was for Paolo and it was never to be like this," explained Ballan. "He was going very well, but he had all of Spain and the other nations watching him.

"I always attacked at that climb [Ronchi] because I thought it was the most dangerous point," he continued of the 17.35-kilometre circuit, which also included the climb of Montello. "I talked with Paolo and he wanted to make a hard race for the sprinters. At the end, it went well."

Indeed, the race went so well that Italy had three men in the final 12-man move that took shape as the race zoomed to the converted horse track dubbed "Mapei Cycling Stadium". The heat was building for Italy to take action and drop some rivals. Ballan went into action at 3,000 metres out in the heart of Varese.

"I was a little uncertain. I tried before on the climb, I did not decide to do this when I saw this finish in the preview. I heard the roar of the fans and they gave me the strength – it was very difficult, but I gave it all.

"I was not alone in those final kilometres; I was joined by the roar of the fans. They helped me to finish my race. I was only thinking not to be caught. ... I thought of the women's and under 23 races, how the finish worked."

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