Std. disclaimers: I'm completely biased toward Italians and classics guys, so it probably doesn't register much surprise that I'm happy with Alessandro Ballan's world championship victory yesterday. Still, you had to know this was coming, so here's a little IMHO perspective.
The Rainbow Jersey is a somewhat tenuous honor. The UCI World Championship is a fairly prestigious event, based on the lofty title and the history to back it up (nee 1927), and it does tend to turn out an elite field, making the winner worthy of celebration by the old "judge the value of the win by who finished second" standard.
But it's a late-season race, which increasingly doesn't work for the Tour de France contenders; the national team format shifts the balance of power around somewhat randomly from the normal trade team structure; the course itself changes with the wind; and the rainbow jersey has been worn by enough subsequently unimpressive riders as to be suspected of a curse. Moreover, anointing someone as the Champion of the Entire Season based on a single day's result is asking for trouble, and it should come as no surprise when a Romans Vainsteins or Igor Astarloa takes the jersey and does nothing with it.
Still, the list of winners is mostly big names: LeMond, Moser, Armstrong, Boonen, Hinault, Kuiper, Merckx, Gimondi, and on and on. Cycling wants its second-most famous jersey on the shoulders of the worthy. So in the final analysis, while it's subject to some glaring exceptions, the title of "world champion" is generally worthy of the peloton's respect.
Which is why Alessandro Ballan's victory is great for the sport. While a surprise winner to everyone (except PdC member and on-scene reporter Squa), Ballan brings two important qualities to the arc-en-ciel. First, he's a change of pace from the usual winners. Over the last decade ending yesterday, sprinters had won six of the nine previous titles, including pure sprint specialists like Freire, Cipollini and Vainsteins who only win on the flats. Tom Boonen is the only sprinter to boast additional, significant skills from that group. The three non-sprinter wins came from Bettini and Astarloa, Ardennes guys, i.e. climbers.
Ballan is neither, really. He can sprint decently, against the non-specialists, and he can punch his way over the Muurs and Bergs of Flanders, but doesn't rely on any special, natural advantage. Instead he is a true Classics rider, relying on brute strength, endurance and a tactical sense to give him the best chance to win. This is one of the recognizable rider types in the grand spectrum, but one that rarely gets celebrated at the World Championships. And since I can't sprint or climb either, it's my favorite rider-type, so... yay.
Secondly, he's worthy on at least two levels: grinta and smarts. Ballan's victory in the 2007 Tour of Flanders is one of the all-time guttiest performances, eschewing gamesmanship in the final-km two-man duel with Leif Hoste for an utterly improbable last-second counterpunching win -- pure will power. Each season he competes over a pretty broad array of terrain: always a force on the cobbles; a fixture at the Tour, where he joins the Lampre support team; and a summer/fall campaign too, which boasts wins at Vattenfalls and a mountain stage of the '08 Vuelta (maillo oro too). Fourth at San Sebastian last year; second at Plouay this year. He's kind of everywhere, and quite often is racking up wins or placements that you wouldn't expect from him. Lots of Cobbles guys dine out all year on April records like Ballan's, but he seems to race hard, all the time.
I can't read his mind, but a record like his strongly suggests he loves cycling. The fact that he's also really, really good at it, especially over some of the sport's most hallowed roads, makes his frame an excellent place to store the Rainbow Jersey for a year. Happy times.