Katusha classics stud Filippo Pozzato has been a big deal as long as he's ridden a bike. As a teenager he was groomed for greatness as part of the "class of '81" Mapei development team, along with fellow 1981-born stars Fabian Cancellara and Bernhard Eisel. He won multiple U-19 world championship medals and trade team races. From there he was billed as the next big thing at Fassa Bortolo, a situation that didn't suit him, though he won Tirreno-Adriatico and a Tour de France stage anyway. By age 24 he'd jumped to Quick Step and won Milano-Sanremo, re-stoking the media fires around him. He returned to Italy triumphantly for the 2007 season, with a fat Liquigas contract and his first real chance at leading a major classics squad.
Things didn't quite work out at the 'Gas, but Pozzato now finds all the elements of his career coming together nicely. Apprenticeships under Squinzi and Lefevre are pretty much the best possible preparation. He's 27 years old now, hitting his physical prime with a storehouse of experience that often proves so vital in the Monuments. And his move to Katusha is finally paying off.
In retrospect, it is hard to pinpoint anything particularly bad about his time with Liquigas. Pippo says he "felt the pressure" of not winning last year, and perhaps being home amongst the Italian media didn't help. But Liquigas' decision not to reup with him had more to do with the team's focus on stage racing in the wake of Ivan Basso's return than any real problems. And the fact that in his two years he won Het Volk, and continued to improve at Flanders (sixth last year) say more about his form than the hair gel jokes or paltry victory totals. The guy is a flahute.
His two victories in two starts, E3 Prijs and today's stage of Driedaagse de Panne, are crucial in one respect: Pozzato needed to regain his confidence heading into Sunday. He constantly mentions his dry spell of victories in interviews -- he oozes a need to win, both out of ambition and anxiety over the last year. Two wins in tough races, dispatching Tom Boonen both times, should get him in the perfect frame of mind. It also shows the world and his own team that if Pozzato makes the finale of de Ronde, he has every chance to win the sprint.
His timing isn't totally perfect, however. Alessandro Ballan's presence would have drawn a lot of attention off Pippo, but Ballan is home recuperating from illness. Fabian Cancellara's delayed form probably means Quick Step will have Pippo hemmed in on all sides. Kenny De Haes and Flanders veteran Serguei Ivanov will be around to help, but Pippo has to hope that Cervelo, Silence, Rabobank, Saxo Bank and Columbia give Lefevre plenty of other distractions.
Ultimately, though, Flanders tends to separate the strongest riders, and Pippo can probably risk sticking on Boonen, in the hopes that the two-time winner won't be willing to send a teammate off to victory again this year. Team tactics aside, it's Pippo's perfect race: hilly enough to force a selection but not enough to deter Pozzato. Technical enough to challenge anyone who doesn't excel at bike handling (two podiums at MSR says that Pippo can handle the bike). Not quite the power-fest that is Paris-Roubaix. Long enough so that if there's a sprint, it won't simply go to the guy with the fastest closing speed. Pippo can sprint with most guys, but his wins come on the business end of the sport's harder days.
One last note: the last Italian to win the Ronde van Vlaanderen was obviously Ballan, just two years ago. Earlier in that fateful week Ballan executed a two-man escape on the first Driedaagse stage to Zottegem. He lost the sprint to Luca Paolini, but notice had been served that Ballan was very, very strong. Pozzato is retracing those footsteps today, with one exception: he can finish off a sprint too.