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Team Review: Lampre Grab Some Headlines

Team Lampre-Fondital, representing a universe of goods from sheet metal to metal radiators (lame metaphor omitted), are a fine example of the pitfalls of determining what a "good season" is (longer whine omitted). I'd argue this was a fabulous year for them, but the numbers don't agree.

My argument: between Alessandro Ballan (Flanders) and Damiano Cunego (Lombardia) they won two of the five Monuments. They covered the bases at home, between Lombardia, Cunego's decent Giro, and a slew of excellent non-Pro Tour wins. They emerged as a Grand Tour points team (at least until the transfer season). Other than Cunego slipping one place in the Giro, these results are unrivalled by their 2006 palmares.

Yet the keepers of the points tell another story. The most comprehensive Cycling Quotient team ranking had them 8th this year, after 3rd last year and 13th in 2005. Their Pro Tour numbers were 10th, 5th and 16th, again ranking 2007 as a dropoff. Like Rabobank (analyzed last week) the culprit is depth: they had more last year. But is that better than winning 40% of the monuments? Is anything?

Another anomaly is the difference between their Pro Tour standings and CQ, where they rate higher. Obviously this suggests that as compared to their Pro Tour brethren, their bread was buttered at a lot of non-Pro Tour races. Of course, every sponsor has its priorities, and no nation's Cycling scene is more self-absorbed than Italy's (though it may be a 3 or 4-way tie). So if they're depleting their Tour de France team so they can staff the Brixia Tour, that's their prerogative. Maybe the Italian sheet metal market is where it's at.

Damiano Cunego is a perfect example. In late April the Lampre captain completely blew up the Giro del Trentino, a beautiful three-day race in the region where the Alps meet the Dolomites. He won the first two stages and cruised in with the overall for the second straight year. Other races taking place that week: Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallonne, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege (the Kid showed up, took 7th). Priorities indeed.

Anyway, rather than getting bogged down in the depths of the roster, let's look at how the big names fared.

Alessandro Ballan: He won two major Pro Tour races -- Flanders and the Vattenfalls "Classic" -- as well as Dreidaagse de Panne. He also took 4th in San Sebastian, and perhaps more importantly for his development he rode (and finished) the Tour de France. In 2006 his only win was the Trofeo Laigueglia, though his season consisted of 3rd in Paris-Roubaix and 5th in de Ronde. So by any metric, Ballan had a much better year... except the official ones: his point totals decreased from a 2006 total largely inflated by high finishes in Tirreno-Adriatico, the Eneco Tour and Tour of Poland. Somehow I doubt Ballan is even slightly concerned; his Flanders win is a legacy on its own. He'll be a cobbles contender for some time to come.

Daniele Bennati: Qualitatively and quantitatively, Benna had a far better year in 2007: his 10 wins included five grand tour stage wins (2 Tour and 3 Vuelta) and five victories in points competitions (Vuelta, Tour de Suisse, Dreidaagse, Valencia, Med Tour). By comparison, last year he racked up 9 wins and one points comp (Suisse), but no grand tour stages having only come close at le Tour. So his improved results vaulted him from 23rd to 15th in the CQ rankings, coincidentally swapping places with Ballan. Also, I can't go a week without mentioning how he completely, brilliantly launched Ballan's Flanders win. For his sake he's an elite points contender at whichever grand tours he attends for the next 5 years or so. So it's a bummer that Bennati has since jumped ship to Liquigas, and it remains to be seen if Lampre are officially farked in Grand Tour sprints now. But 2008 is still a ways off.

Damiano Cunego: Well, he slipped one place in the Giro GC and skipped the Tour where he was the defending Best Young Rider, so the season was looking pretty moribund. But in the span of a week, the last week of the year, he finished fifth in Emilia, won the GP Beghelli, and bagged Lombardia for the second time. Kablammo! Successful season. A total of six wins, plus 5th in Giro (3 top-five stages); 5th in Suisse; 4th in Pais Vasco. I've said a bajillion times how I wish he focused on one-day races, but the counterargument is that at age 26 he's a regular contender for the Giro title and some other big stage races, so you can't blame him for making that the focus of next season.

Danilo Napolitano: He increased his points haul by 15% this year, largely on the strength of his 4th place at Vattenfalls and a Giro stage win. Otherwise, seven wins and a points jersey are identical to his 2006 palmares. But the real story is that in 2006 his major races were the Vuelta and D-Tour; in 2007 they were the Giro, Le Tour and D-Tour. That's a big step up in experience, and until a more elite sprinter arrives, Napolitano figures to be Lampre's designated sprinter. He may have unusually thick eyebrows, but for a few days of week two he was the fastest man in the Giro.

For next year, they've lost not just Bennati but Tadej Valjevic, with no big names incoming. Danilo DiLuca is still on the market and something of a fit, but there's too much noise for that to happen right now. Ballan and Cunego will still garner headlines, but they've taken a hit to their classics depth and Napolitano is more of a plan-B kind of guy. So enjoy those 2007 wins... might be a while before they return.