When Alessandro Petacchi was deemed surplus to requirements by Omega Pharma-QuickStep at the tail-end of last season, it appeared as though his career had come to an end. Soon to turn 41 and with a shrinking number of berths available on other teams, it was logical to assume that his brief spell in Mark Cavendish’s retinue might prove to be Petacchi’s professional swan song.
In early January, however, the team formerly known as YellowFluo, unveiled a new sponsor, Chinese steel concern Southeast, some rather more sober grey colours and a high-profile arrival in the shape of Petacchi. Shortly afterwards, the squad was confirmed among the wildcard invitations to this year’s Giro d'Italia, despite the positive tests of Danilo Di Luca, Mauro Santambrogio and Marco Rabottini in the past two seasons.
Petacchi, currently in action at the Tour of Turkey, has raced sparingly thus far in 2015, but he will be the marquee name in Southeast’s Giro d'Italia line-up and almost certainly the oldest rider in the field at the corsa rosa when it gets underway in San Remo on May 9.
"I’m looking to build up as best I can. My condition is only ok right now, but I feel quite good, and so long as it continues to improve, then I'll be happy," Petacchi told Cyclingnews recently.
Petacchi has won 22 Giro stages in his 13 appearances to date, though he was stripped of five more following his positive test for salbutamol during the 2007 race. In 2004, Petacchi clocked up a remarkable nine stage victories but Angelo Zomegnan’s arrival as race director the following year saw opportunities for the sprinters gradually recede. By 2011, when Petacchi claimed the last of his stage wins in Parma, there were just three bona fide bunch sprints, though he startled by almost claiming the uphill sprint finish in Fiuggi. That year marked the end of Zomegnan’s reign, and under the stewardship of first Michele Acquarone and now Mauro Vegni, the sprinters have been afforded more amenable terrain and more sprint finishes.
"I think there could be six sprint stages or so this year," Petacchi said. "And beyond that, there’s always the chance of some tougher stages that could end up with a reduced peloton 80 or 90 riders sprinting it out. But for sure there’ll be six or seven chances for the sprinters, which is about the usual."
After swapping sprint duties at Lampre for a part in Cavendish’s lead-out train at QuickStep, Petacchi has been pencilled in for something of a mentoring role at Southeast, where neo-professional Jakub Mareczko features among the stable of fast men. Like Andrea Guardini before him, the youngster arrives in the professional ranks with devastating finishing speed but also with ample margin for improvement in just about every other department.
"This is clearly a more tranquil team and there’s less stress [than at QuickStep] but you still have to live the life of a bike rider," Petacchi pointed out. "As for Marezcko, he’s very, very explosive but he needs to improve his resistance because in the amateur ranks he didn’t do much climbing. In the future he wants to ride a Giro d’Italia or even harder weeklong races, he’ll need to train differently and build up his endurance a lot just to get to the sprints."
In Turkey, Petacchi has been serving as lead-out man for Manuel Belletti, though he noted that he might have the opportunity to contest sprints for himself at the Giro should the chance present itself.
"Belletti is a rider who goes well on the climbs too, so in the tougher stages where it’s down to 50 or 60 riders, he could have his say. He’s quick too, although in a real bunch sprint it’s a different matter," Petacchi said. "We’ll see..."
The week before the Giro starts, the Southeast squad will unveil a new jersey with a design that is reportedly "dedicated" to Petacchi at a presentation in Tuscany, and the Giro itself passes finishes in his home town near La Spezia on stage four. It has the feel of a farewell appearance, though Petacchi insisted that any decision on his future will only be made after the Giro has been completed.
"I’ll ride the Giro d’Italia and then I’ll decide what to do after that. There won’t be many races for the team after the Giro. There are a few races in South America, which is a bit far away. I’ve got a wife and child, so I don’t want to be too far away from home or away for too long. We’ll see," he said.
"The passion is still there and the desire to keep riding is still there but you have to feel physically good too and actually be able to do it. My age is what it is and sometimes it takes a bit longer to recover. And if that feeling continues, maybe it means that it’s time to take a step back."