In Richmond last Autumn, Davide Cassani oversaw Italy's worst showing at a World Championships road race since 1950, but despite that disappointment, he is unwilling at this point to settle for anything less than victory in Saturday's Olympic Games road race in Rio.
Since taking over the reins of the squadra azzurra in 2014, Cassani has lined up at two successive editions of the Worlds without a leader capable of shining on the courses in question, a situation reflected by Sonny Colbrelli's 13th place in Ponferrada and Giacomo Nizzolo's 18th place in Richmond.
On the demanding Rio de Janeiro parcours, however, Cassani can count on Vincenzo Nibali, who has tailored his season specifically around the demands of the Olympic Games. The Giro d'Italia winner raced the Tour de France with no general classification ambitions, but simply as preparation for Rio, and he lines out as one of the favourites for gold.
"In Ponferrada and Richmond, I was conscious that I didn't have a leader and a team suited to those kinds of parcours, but we're contenders here, either for the win or a medal, which is already a great result in the Olympics," Cassani told Gazzetta dello Sport. "But no, I wouldn't sign for a bronze medal now because I know I've got riders who can take Italy to the very top step of the podium."
Winner of the Tour of Lombardy last year. Nibali is the obvious leader of the Italian team as he lines out for his third Olympic Games. The Sicilian also produced Italy's best Worlds result of recent times when he placed 4th in Florence in 2013 and he seems better equipped than Astana stable-mate Fabio Aru for the demands of one-day racing.
"The team is ready for every eventuality with Aru as an alternative to Nibali in the leader's role, even if he's not a one-day rider. But then this isn't any old one-day race," Cassani said. "Then there are two climbers like [Diego] Rosa and [Damiano] Caruso who are capable of being in moves in the crucial phases of the race, and a rider like De Marchi who by his nature can guarantee a certain type of work right from the beginning."
The 256-kilometre race features more than 4,000 metres of climbing, with the denouement expected to come on the three laps of the Canoas/Vista Chinesa finishing circuit, which includes a stiff 8-kilometre climb and sinuous descent. With a maximum of five riders per team, however, Cassani warned that the initial Grumari circuit would not simply be a whittling down process ahead of the finale.
"We have to be very attentive indeed. If the race lights up on the first Grumari circuit, we need to be there in front. You're in trouble if you're caught out because with only five men in a team, you risk burning them all up if rivals or riders from important countries get in the break," he said. "The Olympics, as we know, is a very different race to the Worlds."
The Italian quintet is, on paper, among the strongest in the race, though Cassani listed five other nations with similarly deep rosters – Spain, the Netherlands, Colombia, Great Britain and France. He is mindful, too, of the threat posed by riders from outside the teams expected to control the race. "There are some riders who'll have smaller teams, but they'll be able to ride off the work of others, like Daniel Martin and Rui Costa," he said.
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