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Preview '06: Give me Your Huddled Masses Yearning to Ride Free!

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OK, time to get this preview project moving along. Today we head south of the Alps for the first time and take on the Boot. We've got Italy, France and Spain left; Spain we better do soon before they start winning, and France, we can get to later. If ever. But it's Milan-San Remo week and all things Italian (Stacey made a nice bolognese sauce yesterday, and I have a risotto in me if I can locate some squid ink sauce). So let's get moving!

And as for that theme...

Italy has long been one of the dominant Cycling nations, over time and today. Not that they rule the roost or anything (see our Quick Step preview last month), but they flood the field with talented riders in all disciplines and all races, tend to hold serve at home, and are always making life interesting.

And yet, there's a strange dynamic in that the Italy-based Pro Tour teams are pretty uninspiring. All that Italian talent seems to have emigrated to other countries in search of better opportunity. Ivan Basso is set to become the next big thing at the Tour -- for his Danish CSC outfit. His biggest challenge at the Giro has come from twice-winner Paolo Savoldelli, now at Discovery. When Davide Rebellin completed his magic triple in the Ardennes, it was for German Gerolsteiner, and his country thanked him by running him off the national team to Argentina. Pippo Pozzato was the country's Boonen-like Classics hope for a while, before he decided he could develop better in Belgium... with Olympic champ and heavily decorated Classics whiz Bettini.

When you consider how devoted Italians are to the homeland, it seems strange that so many of them wind up overseas. Or maybe not so strange. Italian riders often talk about the pressure at home, the constant, even overwhelming adulation and attention -- or in bad times, scorn. That same public pressure often results in screwy internal politics on the local teams as well (see Rebellin).

For the same reason New England-born baseball players often know better than to play for the Red Sox, Italian cyclists can be forgiven for preferring a more peaceful life in Belgium or Denmark. And it's hardly unheard of that a talented cyclist might find himself shut out of opportunities at home, or forced to lock in on only the Italian races, and so -- like my great-grandparents -- decide they could do a lot better for themselves if they left.

By dint of sheer numbers, however, Italy is still producing enough home-bound riders to compete with their expensive exports. For a decade the local squadra have featured arguably the world's best pure sprinter (Cipo, then Petacchi), while flooding the podium at the Giro and Italian classics. Damiano Cunego was a 24-year-old world #1 when last healthy, and was quickly succeeded by the overdue arrival of Danilo DiLuca in 2005. So if the home teams are a bit thin and underwhelming compared to several of their northern neighbors, Italian teams will never be confused for the French.

Lampre-Fondital are the class of the bunch. They not only sport the Peloton's most improved uniforms (having extinguished Saeco at last), but potentially the country's best overall rider in Cunego. Sure, last year was a washout, but there is no reason to believe that when he isn't afflicted by internal problems he can't return to his form of 2004, when he exploded with a dominant Giro win and held form all the way through victory among the Falling Leaves of Lombardia. Also, Allesandro Ballan's form has been mentioned a lot lately, and he will be a threat over the spring Classics season. Lampre also feature two young speedsters in Daniele Bennati (for April) and Danilo Napolitano -- whose combined age is less than the best estimate of Slava Ekimov's.

Less prolific but perhaps more celebrated than Lampre, Team Milram will be hocking German dairy products primarily by seeking out sprint opportunities. Much is made of the Zabel-Petacchi merger, and we've opined a lot here already as to how that will work out. But Milram, despite its German roots, is purely Italian in its design: it has almost nothing to offer in any race that doesn't finish in a bunch sprint. I'm sorry if this offends the Mirko Celestino fan club, but I just don't see any palmares outside of the two-headed Zatacchi beast.

Least visible of all so far, Team Liquigas suffers from an equally thin roster, but the two guys it does feature could be worth more than the other two Italian rosters combined. Danilo DiLuca was an 8-month phenomenon last year in capturing the Pro Tour championship, surprising everyone with an inspired Giro right up until the last climb to Sestriere. If he can convert himself to a full-time grand tour threat (another pre-flogged topic here), he could trump Cunego and Lampre. Meanwhile, Magnus Backstedt -- a rare import -- is a strong contender from Saturday til the pack hits the Velodrome in Roubaix. And maybe a green jersey contender somewhere as well. Plan B? Pat their friends at Lampre on the back.