Oscar Gatto showed his mettle on the cobblestones with a smart victory at Dwars Door Vlaanderen last week, and while the Italian is not among the top contenders for Sunday's Tour of Flanders, Vini Fantini-Selle Italia directeur sportif Luca Scinto is confident that his charge can make a significant impression on the race.
Twelve months ago, Scinto was coaxing the best out of Filippo Pozzato, since departed for Lampre-Merida, and their union almost produced the richest of dividends when Pozzato finished second at De Ronde. This time, Scinto is looking for a similar showing from Gatto, a rider he feels was both inspired and over-awed by Pozzato's presence on the squad last year.
"I think Gatto has the potential of a champion but he still has to show his real value," Scinto told Cyclingnews in Bruges' Markt on Saturday afternoon. "He's a very strong rider but last year he had a bit of bad luck and I think Pippo's charisma shackled him a little bit too. He says it didn't but I think it did shackle him quite a bit actually."
Gatto's most famous win to date came at the Giro d'Italia in 2011, when he attacked in the finale and held off a fast-closing Alberto Contador and the peloton to win in Tropea. Scinto reckons that Gatto and his team will have to show similar invention if they are to prevail on Sunday.
"We have two possibilities. If we ride just for a position, then I'm sure that we will get a significant one, but if we ride to win, we'll have to invent something. And with Gatto, we'll look to invent something," Scinto said.
"We can't just wait for Sagan and Cancellara. I mean, Oscar's a fast finisher and they'll have to drop him but with this Cancellara, I don't know how many people will be able to stick with him when he steps on the gas. We'll have to have a bit of fantasia and show a bit of courage, but I don't think Gatto should be underestimated and I don't think his rivals underestimate him either."
Gatto began his career with two years in the ProTour at Gerolsteiner but has spent the intervening period at the Pro Continental level with Scinto's squad. Scinto acknowledged that the 28-year-old has often lacked conviction in his own abilities but hopes that Dwars Door Vlaanderen marked a turning point.
"He loves racing in Belgium, he adores the Flemish races and I think he's on the crest of a wave after that win, so the Tour of Flanders is coming at exactly the right time," Scinto said. "I hope that this moment of euphoria can help him to put in a big performance."
Pro Continental disadvantage
It was with even greater regret, then, that Vini Fantini-Selle Italia sat out E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem, having failed to obtain wild card invitations from the organisers.
"Given his form and the fact that he goes well in the cold, we were sorry to miss that. Those two races could have told us a bit more about the condition of Oscar Gatto," Scinto said. "But look, we're glad to be here for Flanders, which is maybe the most beautiful race in cycling."
As a Pro Continental squad, Vini Fantini must sweat on invitations to WorldTour events, but even when they do get the nod, Scinto's squad still finds itself at something of a disadvantage. The order for team cars in the race convoy is assigned according to WorldTour ranking, and so wildcards such as Vini Fantini spend the day a long way from the rear of the peloton. On the cobblestones, where punctures and crashes are such a hazard, it is an additional obstacle to surmount.
"When you've got car number 19 or 20 or whatever, it's hard to get up to support your rider quickly and so we really do need luck on our side," Scinto winced. "Pro Continental teams don't gain any WorldTour points and that's a shame because we would have taken a lot at Tirreno-Adriatico with Mauro Santambrogio. We're caught between a rock and a hard place really: we're a Pro Continental team who races a lot of WorldTour events, so it's hard to score points in one or the other."
Last season, of course, the marquee name of Filippo Pozzato all but guaranteed Scinto's men a ride at the major classics. Whether his name has the same cachet in the wake of the three-month suspension he served last summer for his links to Dr. Michele Ferrari is open to debate, but the point is moot in this particular context given that he has since returned to the WorldTour with Lampre-Merida.
Although victorious at the Trofeo Laigueglia, Pozzato has not shown quite the same vim in Lampre-Merida colours in 2013 as he did in the fluorescent yellow of Farnese-Selle Italia, but Scinto believes his former charge will be present and a factor in the finale on Sunday.
"Pippo has a mentality that is both wrong and right at the same time, but in the important races, he's always up there. I don't know his current state of form but I think he's going well," Scinto said.
"I'm also pleased to see that he has followed the same build-up to Flanders as he did last year, which must mean that Luca Scinto didn't make too many mistakes when he managed Pozzato. If one of our riders can't win, then I'd like it to be Pippo because I have a lot of affection for him after the magnificent year we had last year."
"It will be hard to win, mind, with Cancellara and Sagan around. But then again, you never know. Sagan and Cancellara don't like each other much and this could be a good thing for everyone else."