Soliciting help here (coughGaviacough)... could it somehow be an accident that Lampre are a virtual photonegative of Liquigas? Think about it: Lampre and Liquigas are Italy's sole Pro Tour outfits. Italian cycling is producing a steady stream of top-top-level riders in virtually every road cycling discipline: grand tours, bunch sprints, cobbled classics and hilly classics. Liquigas are loaded for grand tours and bunch sprints. Lampre are loaded for cobbled and hilly classics. And Pippo Pozzato is in Russia. Given that Liquigas raided Lampre in the last couple years for Daniele Bennati and Sylvester Szmyd (among others?), I get the sense that Leaky treat their pink brethren like a sort of farm system. And yet Lampre seem to respond by filling the void in Liquigas' resume rather perfectly. I can't tell if these teams are rivals for tifosi affections, or yin-yang halves of a rather perfect whole. Anyway, without further ado...
Attributes: Depth in both classics disciplines. I've fretted in print a time or two over Alessandro Ballan's lack of support in the cobbled classics. Suddenly this doesn't seem to be a problem. First, Ballan got himself into position for the Paris-Roubaix win last year, and got checkmated by Quick Step, along with everyone else, out of de Ronde. So support was hardly the issue... and it sure as hell won't be this year either. DS Guiseppe Saronni's primary offseason acquisition was Enrico Gasparotto from Barloworld, owner of a monster spring in 2008: one time trial short of winning Dreidaagse de Panne (he finished third); 7th in Brabantse Pijl; second on GC at Tirreno-Adriatico, and top-six in three other Italian races last March. Gaspa hasn't done Paris-Roubaix or Flanders, so his ability to stick around in the hardest races is unproven, but at 26, he provides a dangerous sprint option in at least some corners of Flanders. Even more promising is Simon Spilak -- ninth in his first crack at de Ronde last year, at the ripe old age of 22. Maybe this was a fluke, but he hung around Dreidaagse and E3 as well. That's a sterling pair of understudies to the reigning World Champion.
The hilly classics are no less a target: Cunego is a virtual metronome at Lombardia, ringing up his third win in four tries last year, while also bagging his first Ardennes race (Amstel), making him a two-season classics ace to go along with his fair showings at the Giro. Not sure how much protection he'll need in the Ardennes, but his staff includes veterans Bruseghin, Caucchioli and Mori, plus emerging talents like Mauro Sant'ambrogio.
Problems: Stage race GC placings aren't a true strong suit for Saronni's charges, though Cunego and Bruseghin can at least make face-saving attempts at the Giro podium. What's really lacking is sprinting prowess. And it matters: in Benna's last season with Lampre, they ranked third in the world; without him they slipped quickly to the back of the Top Ten. Liquigas, meanwhile, was 13th in the world in 2006, their last year without Benna, but immediately rocketed up to third in 2007 (6th in 2008). You get what you pay for.
Lampre do have a sprint team, and things might get better someday. Mirco Lorenzetto can finish with the best sprinters outside the Benna-Freire-Cav-Boonen level. Francesco Gavazzi and Simone Ponzi seem to be future sprint hopes, based on some past success. Gavazzi outkicked Romain Feillu in the Giro della Toscana two years ago. We'll see.
Key Rider: Gasparotto. I think he's further along than Spilak, though the latter could surprise. If Gaspa is really ready to team with Ballan, Lampre could be yet another beast of a team on the cobbles this spring. Is it March yet?
Key Moment(s): Tough one. The prospect of winning a Monument in the arc-en-ciel jersey is huge, and the brilliant Ballan will be among the favorites in each of the first three... but he'll be a heavily marked man too. So I'll go with Mendrisio, Switzerland, September 26. Yes, he'll be riding for the Azzurri, but Damiano Cunego has to be dreaming of the world championship, and if he gets it... a second title within the not-so-powerful Lampre unit will be rather amazing.
Passing Thought: At the risk of sounding repetitive, can Cunego prioritize his calendar toward the classics more this year? I believe he has made some statements in the last year or thereabouts indicating that he's no longer overly caught up in winning another grand tour. Sure, he'll say the right things about the Giro, but Cunego has buttered his bread quite effectively and consistently over the last few years in the one-day races. He has a chance to expand his resume in the Ardennes, having made it through Amstel-Fleche-Liege week now with a win and two other nice rides. And his fall season might be an even higher calling, since Mendrisio is probably his last clear chance at the world title for a few years, as the course gets rotated away from his home village. I really like this team, much more than Liquigas, and would prefer to see Lampre be great at what they do well, rather than good at a larger smorgasbord of racing styles.