An Italian has not won Paris-Roubaix since Andrea Tafi in 1999, but Team Sky's Gianni Moscon is hoping to change that sooner or later. Moscon is arguably an outsider for a place on the final podium in Sunday's race but the 22-year-old from the Trentino region is mature and wise beyond his years and like former Italian winners Francesco Moser, Franco Ballerini and Tafi, he seems to have the natural pedigree that is needed to one day lift the cobblestone prize.
Moscon is one of the best young Italian riders of his generation, having racked up an impressive run of results in important Italian races as an up-and-comer. He was put under close observation by Team Sky in 2015 and then made his professional debut in 2016. He was immediately given a taste of the pavé as a pro. He was in the front group in the finale at Paris-Roubaix last year only for his chances to end when Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan crashed in front of him. He got up to finish 38th but was left hungry for another chance.
Teammates and team leaders Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard have struggled to land any significant results this spring due to bad luck and a lack of legs when the races exploded. Moscon has been trying his hardest to fill in for them. He was well-placed when Tom Boonen forced the split on the Muur of Geraardsbergen at the Tour of Flanders and went on to finish 15th in the select chase group that sprinted for fifth place.
Moscon will support Rowe and Stannard on Sunday but it would not be a surprise to see him at the sharp end of the race on the pavé. He crashed hard at Tirreno-Adriatico when his front wheel exploded during the team time trial but is on form despite a nerve problem in his hip.
"We haven't landed a big result this spring on the cobbles but Kwiatkowski won Milan-San Remo and so there's no pressure to get a result. This is out last chance to show our strength in cobbled Classics but I think we can do something," Moscon told Cyclingnews after the team presentation in Compiegne on Saturday afternoon.
"I was happy with my ride at Flanders even if I didn't have the legs to do better than 15th. Stannard was third last year and we're confident he and Rowe can do a ride again this year. I just hope to have a good race and go as far as possible. I won't have a job to do early on, so my role will be to stay with them for as long as possible and see what happens in the race. If needed, I'll work for them; I've no problem with that. It all depends what happens in the finale."
Loving the pave
Moscon turns 23 on April 20 but already has the physique and ability for the spring Classics. Many Italians hate the rough and tumble of racing on cobbles but he loves it all.
"It was love at first sight when I saw the pavé. When you train on the pavé it's fun because it's so different to the road," he recently told Gazzetta dello Sport.
"Of course in a race it's a lot different, its painful and you have to dive in head first and try and stay on the wheel in front. In training you can avoid the holes and gaps, in the race you have to go into them and hope everything is okay on the other side."
Moscon is not afraid in the dangerous moments of the race.
"A little fear helps you stay alert but I'm not afraid of the pavé," he said.
"I don't like going in breaks because I like to race with, shoulder to shoulder with the best in the bunch. That's when you learn things. I've come on a lot since my debut last year. I've spent more time in Belgium and have been fully immersed in the racing here."
A taste of the Ardennes
Most riders can look forward to a break after an intense cobbled Classics campaign and a series of preparation races. Moscon will head home to Italy on Monday but will be back in northern Europe for the upcoming Ardennes week. He won a hilly stage and the overall classification at the 2016 Arctic Race of Norway, earning a special prize of 500kg of salmon and showing his multitude of talents.
"I'll ride Fleche-Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. I want to see what I can do and not hide behind the excuse of having a busy race calendar," he said, with his long spring also expected to extend to the Tour de Romandie before he finally enjoys a break.