After over a decade of battling at the sharp end in bunch finishes, Alessandro Petacchi admitted that he gave serious consideration to returning his sword to his scabbard and accepting the role of Mark Cavendish’s lead-out man for the 2013 season.
The 38-year-old Petacchi eventually signed on for another season as Lampre-ISD’s lead sprinter, but only after mulling over Cavendish’s offer and the change of status it entailed. Ultimately, the move floundered over the ongoing uncertainty regarding Cavendish’s team for next season, with the Manxman still rumoured to be on the brink of leaving Sky for Omega Pharma - Quick-Step.
"I spoke a bit with Cavendish, but one of the problems was that he still didn’t know where he was going," Petacchi told Cyclingnews in Beijing. "We met at a criterium in Belgium and I asked him if these rumours about him leaving Sky were true. He told me that he might be leaving and asked me what I was doing, so I said that my contract was expiring and that we could talk if he was interested.
"I still had the intention of continuing as a rider, but if I ride, I want to ride well or at least I want to have the right stimulus. This thing intrigued me. I liked the idea, but it was going on too long and I didn’t want to cause problems for my own team by not giving them an answer to their offer."
With just three wins to his name in 2012, all outside the WorldTour, Petacchi scarcely achieved his stated aim of adding to his market value this season, and in spite of the face that he was implicated in the Padova-based doping investigation led by Benedetto Roberti in 2010, Lampre-ISD were nonetheless keen to keep the veteran onboard. When another competing offer from Liquigas-Cannondale hit complications due to uncertainty over its title sponsor for next year, Petacchi decided to stay put.
"I still hadn’t heard anything from Cavendish about his situation. At the same time I was talking with Liquigas, but there were some questions with them over their new sponsor and that was dragging on a bit," Petacchi said. "I weighed things up and in the end I figured that while I knew what I might be leaving, I didn’t know what I might be getting into. So I decided to stay where I am."
Petacchi’s career since 2010 has been overshadowed by his implication in the Padova- inquiry - after already serving suspension for a 2007 salbutamol positive, another infraction would effectively end his career - but the Italian has remained in the peloton and kept eking out victories. Most notably, he won two stages and the green jersey at the 2010 Tour de France and outwitted Cavendish himself on the opening road stage of the following year’s Giro d’Italia.
A firm advocate of Robert Millar’s maxim that a rider should never stand when he can sit down, Petacchi sought repose in the back seat of the Lampre team car as he explained why he was so tempted to sacrifice his own sprint ambitions to ride in the service of a rival.
"It’s hard to do a sprint with only one or two riders to lead you out. You risk a lot just to get a placing and maybe take a nice win every now and then," he said. "I wasn’t sure if it was worth it, which is why I could have made that choice to have less responsibility and to risk less too.
"When you’re in a lead-out train, you only have to follow your teammates, but when you’re behind, you risk more because it’s more of a fight to hold the wheels. What worries me in these situations is crashing, because you risk compromising a lot of your season. I can’t afford to be out for three months with a crash because I don’t have a lot of years ahead of me."
No matter, at the age of 39, Petacchi will again rage against the dying of the light in bunch sprints in 2013, and he is bidding to sign off on this current campaign with a win in Beijing to see him through the dark the months of winter. "A WorldTour race is always important and right now I feel ok. I haven’t done a lot of races near the end of the season but I’ve still come here pretty prepared."
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Barry Ryan is European Editor 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.