It has been 20 years since Franco Ballerini won the 1995 edition of Paris-Roubaix with a solo attack on the Templeuve sector of pavé. Ballerini went on to win in 1998 and Andrea Tafi won in 1999 but since then Italian riders have failed to lift the cobbled trophy in the centre of the Roubaix velodrome.
Filippo Pozzato finished second in 2009 and with only 17 Italian riders in this year’s peloton, he is again the best-placed rider to follow in the footsteps of Ballerini. However he is now 33 years old and has not won a race since the 2013 GP Ouest Plouay.
"I think it’s just pure chance that we haven’t won for so long," Pozzato suggested to Gazzetta dello Sport in a long interview with Ciro Scognamiglio about Paris-Roubaix. "We’ve had spots on the podium with Pieri and Ballan, while my second place is one of the few regrets that I have.
"Roubaix is about being at the front of the race. That year the motorbikes dragged him (Tom Boonen) clear for about 10km. I was at 10-15 seconds for a bit but then I eased up. It was the only time that I was also spat on from the roadside, at the Carrefour de l’Arbe. Since then they’ve changed the rules and the police control the drinking."
In any pre-race Paris-Roubaix prognostic, Pozzato sits somewhere between the favourite and an experienced outsider. He’s never afraid to speak his mind but knows he cannot make any wild predictions this year.
"A rider is defined by his results. I haven’t won for a year and a half, so I can’t make any proclamations," he admitted. "I don’t want to and don’t have to do. I’m going a lot better than last year and how I was going at the Tour of Flanders last week. My result was a good sign because I’d been ill the week before and at this level, you can’t afford a problem like that. I think I’ve fully recovered and my legs are good. All I need is some good luck…"
Pozzato grew up admiring Ballerini’s love for Paris-Roubaix and even raced with him at Mapei in 2001. Later Ballerini became the Italian national coach and often selected Pozzato as a team captain. Ballerini died in a car rally accident in February 2010.
"It’s difficult for me to speak about Franco, how much I miss him and how much we all miss him," Pozzato said. "It’s the anniversary of his win on Sunday and the best way to remember him would be to win Roubaix. It’d put us (Italian cycling), back at the top and I’m sure he’d look down on us and be happy."
Pozzato has guided his younger Lampre-Merida teammates during the cobbled Classics, passing on his advice and love for the pavé to Davide Cimolai and Niccolo Bonifazio. He led the team during their reconnaissance. "The Roubaix pavé is unique and we only race on it once a year. The equipment is different and you’ve got to test it and taste the cobbles so you know what you’re facing. The different star grades of difficulty is pretty truthful. The Forest of Arenberg, Carrefour de l’Arbe and Mons e Pevel are the real hard sectors. This year the Carrefour has become even worse. It’s bad, rough and you have to really suffer to get over it, you don’t even know where you are…"
Pozzato has never been afraid to speak his mind, he posted on Twitter about his anger over the high-speed crash at the end of stage 1 of the Tour of the Basque Country when Pete Stetina (BMC) was one of many riders to crash.
"Our lives aren’t worth a thing!!! We’ll carry on until someone is killed," he posted, with a few sarcastic handclap emoticons and #theshowmustgoon.
"There’s a lot that we could say about the subject but I want to say one thing about the five-minute protest at the stage after the bad crash at the Tour of Basque Country: I don’t agree with the CPA (Professional Cyclists Association), what they did was a joke. The thing to do at that moment was to all go home. The important question is: how much are out lives worth?"