At the same point twelve months ago, Andrea Guardini (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia) already had six wins to his name, after rattling off five stage victories at the Tour de Langkawi and repeating the trick on the final day of the Tour of Qatar.
This time around, wins have been somewhat harder to come by for the second year professional, even if the raw statistics don't tell the full story. Guardini's two near misses at January's Tour de San Luis, for instance, came against a stronger complement of sprinters than the one he faced in Malaysia at the same time last year.
Speaking to Cyclingnews after a short training ride on the eve of the Tour of Oman, Guardini explained that his primary aim in the opening salvoes of the season is to continue his education as a sprinter. While his natural aptitude for the role's most fundamental requirement remains undimmed, the young Italian freely admits that he is still learning the ropes when it comes to marrying his pure speed to the more technical aspects of his vocation.
"This year, we've been working to have riders who can give me a hand in the final kilometres of a race," Guardini said. "The thing is that it's a bit of a novelty for us. I've never had a real train in my life and I'm realising that it's not that easy to organise a team and succeed in being all together at the right time and starting at the right time."
Those kinks were most evident on the final stage of the Tour of Qatar, where Guardini was looking to repeat his victory of a year ago. On this occasion, he could only manage 8th in the finishing sprint, after hitting the front too far from the line. "We came up a bit too early. There were three of us with 1.5km to go and I found myself a bit too far forward with 500 metres left so because of my error, I lost the chance to really have a go for the win."
For such a young rider, Guardini retains an admirable sense of perspective about how he and his team have fared to date. "We're bringing ourselves up to scratch," he said. "We've learned from Qatar, we've spotted places where we made two or three errors. In a sprint it only takes a small mistake and everything can fall apart, even the very opportunity to sprint."
Though gifted with a prodigious burst of speed in the final metres, the perception throughout Guardini's glittering 2011 campaign was that lacked the stamina and climbing ability to contend for victory on anything but the flattest routes. Over the winter, he quietly set about cutting his cloth accordingly for the new season.
"Above all, I worked on endurance," he said. "I wanted a bigger base so that I can be ready for objectives further down the line. I didn't do too much interval work at the start, also because my winter preparation at home was quite short. In any case, I'm convinced that you get your race rhythm by racing, and that by coming here I can prepare well for races down the line in Italy."
Among those the races is Milan-San Remo, which the 22-year-old Guardini will tackle for the first time in 2012, albeit purely "to go and see the roads and get a taste of the route." After La Classicissima, all roads lead to Herning for Guardini's debut Giro d'Italia. Indeed, his entire campaign has been mapped out with the Giro in mind, and he will tackle the Settimana Coppi e Bartali and the Tour of Turkey to fine-tune his form ahead of May.
"Compared to last year, we've planned the season so that I will be ready in the second part, where the big objective is the Giro d'Italia," Guardini said. "I know that in the first week of the Giro d'Italia there are a lot of stages suited to the sprinters, so I'll look to be 100 per cent ready straight away, for the first or second stage."
With his childhood friend and local Verona rival Elia Viviani blazing a trail of his own at Liquigas-Cannondale, and Sacha Modolo continuing his development at Colnago-CSF, Guardini is part of a burgeoning generation of Italian sprinting talent.
"It's possibly part of our strength that there are so many of us, so there's a lot of competition in Italy," he said. "We're already ready to take on the foreign teams."
On several occasions during the off-season, the Italian press called upon Mario Cipollini to rate the trio of young pretenders to his crown. As the Italian cycling public turns its lonely eyes to its youngsters in search of a new idol, Guardini and his peers could be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed by the expectations being thrust upon them.
"You can't pay it too much attention," he said. "We have to grow because we're still young, and luckily our teams understand this. We're developing step by step, and what comes, comes. The main thing is to do things calmly and grow gradually so as not to burn yourself too quickly."
Even so, Guardini can't deny that he would love to measure himself against - and better - a man with very similar physical attributes in Oman this week.
"In Qatar, I was sorry not to do a proper sprint especially because Cavendish was there in the world champion's jersey, which is a great stimulus," he said, grinning. "It's a great motivation to have him in the peloton, and it's an even bigger motivation to try and beat him."
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