Historically, Italian cyclists, much like the country's footballers, have tended to ply their trade almost exclusively in their homeland. Times change, however, and in recent seasons, more and more Italians have explored their options on the other side of the Alps, including double world champion Giorgia Bronzini, now in her second year at Wiggle-Honda.
Few have made as dramatic a change as Valentina Scandolara, however, who swapped MCipollini for Australian outfit Orica-AIS during the off-season. Hailing from Tregnago, near Verona, the 23-year-old has a fine pedigree, with European titles from her junior and under 23 days on both road and track, and a clutch of impressive performances at elite level.
Yet the very fact that Scandolara raced for five different title sponsors in her first five years as a professional is perhaps indicative of the hand-to-mouth existence of many Italian squads, a fact papered over somewhat by the national team's continued success at world championships. Orica-AIS, she admitted, simply operates on a higher plane than any of her teams to date.
"There are completely different means at our disposal here," Scandolara told Cyclingnews in Doha at the Ladies Tour of Qatar. "For instance, we've already been given SRMs for training, it's much more professional. Unfortunately in Italy, the sponsors are lacking. It's not completely the fault of the teams, but it means we're not at this level yet, even if there are a lot of very talented riders in Italy."
Scandolara points to the close ties between Orica-AIS and the Orica-GreenEdge WorldTour team as another important factor in amplifying the level of support enjoyed by the team. Giant-Shimano and Lotto-Belisol also share sponsors with WorldTour teams, while the French Cycling Federation has plans to put together both men's and women's professional teams perhaps as soon as next year, but such crossovers between the men's and women's pelotons remain exceptions to the rule.
"It's very important that managers and ex-professionals from the men's ranks come across to women's racing, too," Scandolara said. "That's certainly not because our sports directors aren't up to it - for example, my former DS at Cipollini, [Luisiana] Pegoraro is really great - but here we have Gene Bates, who is an ex-pro and he brings a more professional vision of racing and training with him, because the men's peloton is that bit more advanced in terms of training methods, nutrition and so forth."
A rider with a decidedly attacking bent, Scandolara believes that her talents will dovetail neatly with those already in place at an Orica-AIS squad led by world number 1 Emma Johansson. "I'm always very aggressive in the way I ride, which is a bit like Orica's style of racing," said Scandolara, whose stage victory at Thüringen Rundfahrt last summer helped to seal her move to the Australian team.
"After a difficult start, I had a nice season from May onwards, and that got me a bit of attention," Scandolara said. "My plan was to stay with Cipollini, but then at the end of the year, I took the decision to come here. It is a bit unusual for an Italian rider to go and race outside of Italy but I couldn't let this opportunity pass me by: it was a chance to ride for the best team in the world."
Scandolara spent two months in Australia during the winter, and while she has a number of national cyclo-cross medals to her name, she has never begun her road season as early as she has in 2014. "We did the Bay Crits and Santos Cup as well as some training camps," Scandolara said. "It was good to get to know one another in races, and even if they weren't UCI level ones, it was important to create a team dynamic."
The collective strength of the Orica-AIS team was on show on the opening stage of the Ladies Tour of Qatar on Tuesday, when Scandolara and three of her teammates - Emma Johansson, Melissa Hoskins and Loes Gunnewijk - made the front echelon of 21 riders when the race split up in crosswinds with a little over 50 kilometres to race.
The lack of a sprinter of the calibre of gold jersey Kirsten Wild (Giant-Shimano) or Chloe Hosking (Hitec Products) in their ranks means that it will be difficult for Orica to seize the overall lead, but Scandolara promised that the team would continue to try and split the peloton over the coming three days. "As always, you can expect an aggressive race from Orica and we'll try to win the general classification."
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