When you think of cycling in France, what is the first image that comes to mind? I'm talking, one single frozen-in-time image? Then do the same for Spain. And Belgium.
Now try Italy.
Feel free to enter your answers in comments before reading on. My answers, and an unexpected tribute, on the flip.
Obviously your answers are your own, but here are mine, which I suspect are hardly uncommon.
France: Le Tour, right? And probably not the Lens time trial course, or the Champs Elysees. I'm guessing more often than not that question provokes the thought of a certain 21 switchbacks up a verdant hillside. It does for me.
Spain: a dustier version of the France question. The Vuelta is all about silly ascents, albeit not as high as those of Le Tour. For me, it's the Basque Pyrenean peaks.
Belgium: cobbles. Not that I'm into thought policing, but if you didn't think of cobbles, ... no, it's too horrible to contemplate.
But what about Italy? What is the signature image of Italian cycling? The only objective answer I can think of is that there really isn't one. The great races of Italy are:
- Milano-Sanremo, a sprinter's affair that's often sorted out in some late, short, twisting climbs and descents.
- Il Giro di Lombardia, a climber's classic, with terrain ranking somewhere between Ardennes short climbs and mountains.
- Il Giro d'Italia, the only grand tour which is occasionally won by a classics guy where classics guys have a solid chance to win.
- Tirreno-Adriatico, a nice mix of training terrain with an emphasis on sprints.
- A slew of B-list races (Giro di Trentino, Giro dell'Emilia, Tre Valle Varesine, Eroica, Coppa Sabatini, GP Coppi e Bartali) all of which sport some mix of rich tradition, great courses, and/or famous startlists. None of which are regarded as true legend, and none that will ever make it to the big leagues, but homesick or less ambitious Italian stars can have truly fantastic pro careers entirely within the motherland.
The shape of Italian Cycling is completely unique, and a subtly influential -- if not dominant -- matter at this year's Worlds. Italian Cycling is not really about any of the great, fully-appreciated skills of cycling. Despite owning the world's largest pool of talent, rarely does Italy produce a world-class, high-Alps mountain goat, or dominant time trial ace. Rather, the top Italian stars succeed over their endless moderately challenging, winding roads, climbing ably and finishing fast. Like a nice gravy is about melding flavors rather than allowing one to triumph, Italian Cycling celebrates a subtle blend of skills.
[Hey, at least I didn't analogize it to a woman, which I guarantee you someone is doing on the pages of La Gazzetta right now.]
Now, think about the type of rider typically produced by Italy. There is always a handful of pure sprinters, often larger riders who have no climbing ability. Another minor specialist category drawing its share of Italians is cobble-riding, a sport too beautiful not to catch the Italian eye. But the prototype is of guys who can climb -- almost never well enough to win a grand tour, particularly not the grand tour, but real climbing ability nonetheless. And a fair percentage of these guys also possess the ability to wind it up for a sprint.
Paolo Bettini is virtually the prototype of an Italian climber/sprinter, as well as a natural selection to win in Varese. Not far behind would be Damiano Cunego, who on his best form can outsprint plenty of folks, including Bettini. Davide Rebellin is just as much a threat when the finish includes some incline, though his skills lean a tad more toward the climbing than the sprinting. The Azzurri lineup includes several strongmen (Alessandro Ballan, Luca Paolini, Maurizio Bruseghin, Andrea Tonti, Matteo Tosatto), and one pure climber in Gabriele Bosisio, who might just be there for future experience, though he finished a conspicuous fourth in this year's Giro stage to Varese.
Sadly, missing from this list is an original Varesino, Stefano Garzelli. OK, his shady past is as good a reason to forget about him, but assuming he's racing within the rules these days, he's a curious omission. Garzelli, one of those Classics guys who nabbed a maglia rosa, has been on tremendous form lately, and tends to succeed on terrain that looks a lot like Varese, his hometown. Just last week he outsprinted wunderkind Giovanni Visconti to win the GP Wallonie. He's won Tre Valle Varesine twice, and most recently placed fifth behind Ginanni, Bertagnolli (both Azzurri reserves), and Cunego (starting lineup, plan B). Garzelli's exclusion was publicly devastating and unjustifiable on quality alone. Ballerini, however, knows that too many cooks spoil the soup, and Bettini and Rebellin (Olympic silver medalist) have both delivered the hardware over the last 12 months. So the local boy comes home, and is forced to watch the world's greatest cyclists compete for the biggest prize he could imagine, on his old training roads. Honestly, shady past aside, I feel for the guy this week.
More previews coming, including fully handicapping the TT and RR fields. Don't expect that I'll pick a winner from the Azzurri lineup exclusively, there are still a handful of guys out there who can out-Italy the Italians. But even if they don't win, you can virtually guarantee a medal and at least three guys in the top ten... with the potential for a far more grandissimo result.