Davide Cassani has long vowed to unleash ‘organised chaos’ on the UCI Road World Championship road race, but the Italian national coach’s plans risked falling into disarray when Vincenzo Nibali crashed during last week’s Tre Valli Varesine, sustaining deep cuts to his left hip.
Nibali was still in considerable discomfort during the squadra azzurra’s pre-Worlds training camp in Bra earlier this week, prompting speculation in some quarters that the Tour de France winner might not even make the start of Sunday’s race.
Those fears were quickly allayed when the Italian team met with the press in Ponferrada after reconnoitering the course on Thursday morning, as Cassani confirmed Nibali’s presence in his final nine-man line-up, and named Davide Formolo and Edoardo Zardini as reserves.
"That crash at the Tre Valli opened an old wound, and quite deeply too, but once I’m riding for an hour or so, it stops causing me problems because I’m warmed up and I can move freely," Nibali explained. "It’s annoying, but I’m OK."
The press conference began with a round of speeches, including from federation president Renato Di Rocco, before all of the Italian party – men and women, under-23 and junior – were asked to take the microphone and present themselves, dutifully listing off name, age, residence, achievements and ambitions. After 40 riders in succession solemnly explained that they would indeed seek the best possible result and honour the jersey, the floor was finally opened for questions.
"I’m a neo-professional as a commissario tecnico and I have limitations, but I know what it means to wear the blue jersey," said Cassani, who holds the reins as national coach for the first time, but made his Worlds debut as a reserve back in 1983 in Altenrhein.
Beppe Saronni’s 17th place on that occasion, incidentally, was Italy’s worst result in modern times, and while Cassani’s men will be expected to perform better this Sunday, they line up without one of the top favourites for the rainbow jersey in their ranks.
"There are a few teams out there with stronger sprinters than we have, so we’re going to go out and create chaos," said Cassani, who added that his team’s tactics had taken shape organically over dinner at their ritiro in the Langhe. "If the riders don’t share in the decision-making process, then the tactics are bound to fail."
The Italian approach, it seems, will not be overly different to twelve months ago in Florence, when they set their stall out by upping the pace on the head of the peloton in a bid to force an early selection. Unlike last year, however, the course is not ideally suited to Nibali and, by his own admission, the Sicilian is not in the same form.
"It’s clear that I don’t have the same condition as the Tour, and that’s normal because for the Tour I gave 100 percent of myself and more. There were no distractions allowed," Nibali said. "Since the Tour, I’ve had a few parties, I’ve travelled a lot, and I’ve had a lot of appointments. That’s normal for a guy who wins the Tour de France but after 20 days or so, I shut down all the requests and I started training again, and my form has picked up as I got closer to the Worlds."
Cassani described the course "as difficult but not very selective," yet the final climb of Mirador’s proximity to the finish means that, with 250 kilometres in the legs, it might just provide a springboard for a successful late attack. "It was the first time I saw the course today, and I have to say it’s very fast and very different to Florence," Nibali said. "Today, we did a bit of forcing on the last climb, just to see. It’s not easy and it might be possible to try something towards the end when it gets more selective."
It was put to Nibali that the Ponferrada circuit, with its sinuous descent to the line, bears similarities with the finale of the Tour stage to Sheffield, where he took the maillot jaune for the first time with a canny late attack. "You can’t compare it to Sheffield or any classic. It’s a circuit race, and it’s all on the circuit this time too, so that changes everything," he said.
However the final lap plays out, it will be preceded by a lengthy war of attrition. "You can start with the assumption that the Worlds is going to be hard even if it’s on a billiard table," chimed Giovanni Visconti, while Nibali reckoned that 14 trips down the long descent of Conferacion might well exact a toll. "That descent between the two climbs is ugly," he warned. "You’ll need to pay a lot of attention if it rains, because the road surface isn’t the best either."
The prospect of rain was part of Cassani’s rationale for selecting Sonny Colbrelli as his designated sprinter ahead of Filippo Pozzato – "He’s been doing a rain dance all week," he joked – and after 6th place in this year’s rain-soaked Milan-San Remo, and victories in the Memorial Pantani and GP Prato at the weekend, the 24-year-old arrives in Ponferrada on something of a high.
"The fewer people in the finale the better it is, and I’d like it to be selective – not too much, obviously, but enough to make the other sprinters feel it in their legs," Colbrelli told Cyclingnews. "It’s my first Worlds and I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself, but I’ll give my all."
The pressure, at least according to Nibali, is all on the shoulders of the hosts, who are chasing a first rainbow jersey in a decade and seeking to make amends for spurning such a gilt-edged opportunity in 2013.
"They’re the reference point," he said. And Italy? "We’ll have to look to shake up the race. We can’t wait for the finale."
Italian team for elite men’s road race: Fabio Aru, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Daniele Bennati (Tinkoff-Saxo), Damiano Caruso, Alessandro De Marchi (Cannondale), Giampaolo Caruso (Katusha), Sonny Colbrelli (Bardiani-CSF), Manuel Quinziato (BMC) and Giovanni Visconti (Movistar).
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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 (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.