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Azzurri on the Cobbles

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Filippo Pozzato's victory in Het Volk was the perfect cue for a post I've been thinking about... how Italians rank second only to Belgians on the cobbles.

My brother and I have vowels on the end of our name, grew up in a household of fabulous cooks, and have a zillion relatives who also are engulfed in vowels and great pasta recipes. But we're a couple generations into the US and don't spend a lot of time in the old country, physically or otherwise. And yet, blood counts. How do I know this? Because both of us, separately and with no prompting, are crazy for Belgian Cycling. If there is a defining characteristic of Italians, it's an appreciation for aesthetics, right? OK, that's a generalization, but one that rings true in Cycling anyway, when you look at the country's contribution to the sport. Italians have produced the most beautiful bicycles in the world -- Campagnolo, all the frames, you name it. But they will never produce the most beautiful races. For that, you have to go to Belgium, as so many Italian racers do.

I don't want to slip into bad Roberto Begnini shtick, but the connection between Italian Cycling and the Belgian Classics is too deep to be ignored. Yes, Italy has a wealth of talent and can afford to export some to other countries' races, with its own stuff thoroughly locked up. Unlike, say, France. Also, as was much-reported last year when the Giro kicked off in Seraing, the coal mines of Wallonia were once lousy with Italians, and the finale of Liege-Bastogne-Liege is lined with the tricolore as proof of the diaspora that remains. And it goes without saying that this is an article about who's #2... first and foremost, the Belgians OWN the Cobbles.

But numbers like this speak of more than convenience and mere opportunity:

  • In 1951, Fiorenzo Magni became the first -- and for at least another month, only -- rider ever to win the Tour of Flanders three successive times. Since 1990, five different Italian riders have won there (Argentin, Bugno, Bartoli, Bortolemi, Tafi)
  • Pippo's win gives Italy three Het Volks, tied for second with the Dutch.
  • Super Mario won three Gent-Wevelgems. Six wins by Italian riders since 1979, again second only to the locals.
  • Both Fausto and Serse Coppi won Paris-Roubaix. Francesco Moser is one of only two riders to win three in succession. Italy have ten wins. Giorgio Squinzi's Mapei super teams, living demonstrations of Italian-Belgian unity, were among the most successful cobble squads ever, and swept the top three spots in Roubaix twice in three years.
  • Most extreme proof: since 1990, Italians have won nine of 17 editions of La Fleche Wallonne.
  • Since Silvano Contini won Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 1982, Italians have won ten times, including Moreno Argentin's four victories. Granted. L-B-L is fairly international in character, but the host nation has only won three times since then.

Italian Cycling is pretty healthy these days, and it's always good to see well-trained foreigners give the local guys a run for their money. But the sheer number of Italian stars focusing on and specializing in the cobbled classics is more than just an anomaly. Yep, the Classics are no secret, and there are young racers in every Cycling nation dreaming of the victory lap at the Roubaix velodrome. The presence of Italians on podiums across the Classics spectrum, however, speaks of a more broad appreciation for what many of us feel about these beautiful races. And that it comes from a proud nation with its own Cycling lore, where so many great riders defy intense pressure to stay home and win for the tifosi to answer the lure of the cobbles, is ... well, you decide. Next up: what this all means in real time: a Lampre preview...