Filippo Pozzato may have offered further signs of his remarkable recovery from injury and the team may have been the principal animators of the race, but there was a palpable air of regret in the Farnese Vini-Selle Italia camp after the finish of E3 Harelbeke.
Oscar Gatto had been one of three riders from the squad (alongside Luca Ascani and Kevin Hulsmans) to infiltrate the day's early break, before soloing clear confidently on the Paterberg. Later joined by the in-form Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) and Dmitriy Muravyev (Astana) at the front, the trio had a thirty-second lead entering the final 30km to go when a puncture removed Gatto from contention.
The spoils eventually fell to Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) in a sizeable group sprint, but there was definite air of what might have been outside the team bus, as directeur sportif Luca Scinto inspected the rim Gatto had broken in his frustration as he waited for a wheel change on the side of the road.
"If Gatto hadn't punctured, the race would have been completely different. He would have fought out the finish with Chavanel and the lad from Astana. I think they definitely would have got to the finish," Scinto told Cyclingnews. "Gatto had slowed up to wait for them, and then when he punctured, those two pulled away."
His team leader Pozzato was in agreement, although he acknowledged that Fabian Cancellara's (RadioShack-Nissan) puncture on the Kwaremont had also altered the complexion of the race amongst the chasers, and contributed to a more sizeable group than normal disputing the flat run-in to Harelbeke.
"I think that if Cancellara and Gatto hadn't punctured, the race would have changed completely," Pozzato said. "It's a pity as we rode well, we all showed up well, and the race itself was unfolding nicely for us. But at least we showed that we can ride as a great team."
Invited to the northern Classics thanks in no small part to Pozzato's past achievements in Belgium, Scinto was determined that his team would justify its selection on the road to Harelbeke. "Being a WorldTour team is a question of having the status of being a WorldTour team and it's a question of budget," Scinto said. "But in terms of the level of rider, we're showing that if you work hard, if you stimulate your riders mentally then you can do great things. You don't need big names."
That said, Scinto was fulsome in his praise of the biggest name on his team. Pozzato sustained a fractured collarbone at the Tour of Qatar in February, but was back racing less than a week after undergoing surgery, and underlined his burgeoning form this week with 6th place finishes at Milan-San Remo and Dwars Door Vlaanderen.
"He's been very courageous. A bit mad also, but then his directeur sportif is mad too," Scinto joked. "To make him race straight away was madness in a way, but it was the only way to proceed if we wanted to have Pippo Pozzato at the Classics."
"It's not that I'm mad, but it was the only way that I could get to these races in a good condition," Pozzato said. "Now I hope to be 100 percent for Flanders and Roubaix."
Pozzato's rapport with Scinto comes in welcome relief to his fractured relationship with his former Katusha manager Andrei Tchmil, which began to unravel publicly during the Classics twelve months ago.
"Even when I got injured, that was a bad moment, but the team continued to put their confidence in me," Pozzato said. "It's certainly something that helps me ride with a different mindset and with more motivation."
Routinely criticised to almost pantomime effect by his Belgian hosts for sitting on the wheels, Pozzato went on the offensive on the final climb of the Tiegemberg on Friday at the behest of Scinto. Although his forcing ultimately came to nothing, it was an encouraging sign of his condition ahead of the Tour of Flanders.
"The condition is good, the legs are there, so let's hope that the result arrives soon," said Pozzato, who sat up in the sprint and finished 27th rather than risk falling. He returns to action at Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday, his final race before the Tour of Flanders.
"I think Cancellara and Boonen will still be the ones to beat, Boonen especially because he has a really great team whereas Cancellara just has himself and Bennati and the rest aren't at the same level."
After a period in which his team was unwittingly thrown into the spotlight by Mario Cipollini's unsolicited offer to ride the Giro d'Italia in their colours, Scinto will have been pleased that his team was able to showcase its potential at Harelbeke, even if the result didn't follow.
"I don't even want to talk about Cipollini anymore. This is the team here, you saw them today," Scinto said, pointing at the bus.
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