“I’m from Rossano Veneto, not even 10 kilometres from here. These are my home roads, my training roads,” Samuele Battistella (Astana-Premier Tech) smiled in the press room following the inaugural edition of the Veneto Classic, but local knowledge was only part of the story of his dramatic victory.
When Battistella escaped in the company of Matteo Trentin (UAE Team Emirates) with a shade under 40km to go, it already looked like the winning break, given that the race’s two strongest teams were now united in ensuring its success.
“We knew it was a good idea to attack and go regular together, because the two strongest teams in the race were Astana and UAE,” Battistella said. “If we were in front, then nobody was going to pull behind.”
The finale of the Veneto Classic took in three laps over the area’s most emblematic climb, La Rosina, and Battistella and Trentin had a buffer of more than half a minute over an disjointed chasing group when they approached the ascent for the penultimate time. Battistella must have scaled its slopes hundreds of times in his cycling life, but the ascent threw up a surprise here all the same, as Trentin clipped his rear wheel and crashed out of the break.
“I stood up out of the saddle while I was pulling on the climb. He was a bit too close and he touched my wheel and fell,” said Battistella, who was briefly unsure of whether to press on or wait for his erstwhile ally of circumstance. Over his radio earpiece, directeur sportif Giuseppe Martinelli advised him to assess the lie of the land at the summit with a shade under 20km to go.
“I immediately asked the team what to do, and Martino told me to keep going steady and see if somebody came back on. Then when I got the top of the climb still alone, I pushed on all the way to the finish.”
While the 22-year-old acknowledged that Trentin would have been the favourite in a two-up sprint, he pointed out that the lack of a breakaway companion rather complicated his chances of staying clear to the line, particularly now that UAE Team Emirates were suddenly free to chase on behalf of Marc Hirschi.
“I think if he was there, it might have been a bit easier to get to the finish, because I could have rested a bit on his wheel, but maybe I would have lost in the sprint,” said Battistella. “So perhaps the crash changed my race for the better.”
With Serenissima Gravel winner Alexey Lutsenko policing the chase on his behalf, however, Battistella still had a very useful ally in the run-in to Bassano del Grappa, and he still had plenty of strength in reserve, too, as he showed on the last time up La Rosina. He crested the summit with 7km to go with 20 seconds in hand on the chasers. That gap suddenly contracted to barely half a dozen seconds on the short and sharp incline that interrupted the descent with 3.5km remaining, but he held that meagre advantage all the way to the line to claim the first win of his professional career ahead of Hirschi and Jhonatan Restrepo (Androni-Sidermec).
“To be honest, I never turned around on the rise, I just pressed on,” Battistella said. “And then when I looked around on the descent, I saw I still had 50 metres or so. I also saw there wasn’t any agreement among the chasers and I understood immediately that I could do it.”
The victory was Battistella’s first of any description since he claimed the under-23 world title in Harrogate in 2019 following Nils Eekhoff’s disqualification for drafting. He turned professional with NTT the following year and he was then snapped up by Astana last winter when the South African squad’s financial difficulties saw all of its riders free to seek other teams.
Although Battistella made his Giro d’Italia debut this year, he expressed disappointment with how the early part of his campaign played out. A notable turn in the break on the hilly stage through the Oltrepo Pavese to Stradella perhaps marked something of a turning point.
Since then, Battistella has performed strongly at the Arctic Race of Norway and Benelux Tour, before delivering a notable sequence of cameos on home roads in the final weeks of the season. He was sixth at the Trofeo Matteotti and fourth at the Coppa Bernocchi, while he helped to tee up Lutsenko’s victory in Friday’s inaugural gravel race for professional riders.
“I worked for Alexey in the last races because he was the rider most in form and today he returned the favour very well, especially by disrupting the chasing effort among the riders behind me,” said Battistella.
“It’s a little bit of a rebirth, because at the start of the season, I had some health problems and I was out of form for a good while. I managed to find some form after the Giro d’Italia. This is a bit of a release at the end of a season that went badly at the start and then finished very well.”
The Veneto Classic was the final race of Battistella’s year, but thoughts have already begun to turn to the 2022 campaign, with many teams already holding their first pre-season meetings this month. Astana-Premier Tech will be rebranded as Astana-Qazaqstan in 2022, and the squad will have more of an Italian feel with the return of Vincenzo Nibali and the arrival of Gianni Moscon. Battistella, meanwhile, will hope his late season run of form allows him to carve out some space for himself next spring.
“I don’t know the races I’ll do next year, but if I had the possibility of choosing, I’d like to prepare very well for the Ardennes Classics: Amstel, Flèche and Liège,” Battistella said. “But that’s all hypothetical for now.”
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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.