Italians do it their way

Examining the winning team's performance in Stuttgart

Even Paolo Bettini admitted it: there are so many prima donnas in any Italian sports team that, the easier the task, the more delight they seem to take in messing matters up not only for themselves but also their compatriots.

Today we should have seen it coming. Under fire all week, in Stuttgart, the Italians channeled their collective ire into a superb performance culminating in Paolo Bettini's second straight world title. So clearly superior was Bettini that it would have taken a travesty of tactics for him to lose, but it's not as though we haven't seen that from the Italians before. You sensed that today would be different as soon as Damiano Cunego - yes that's former Giro d'Italia champion Damiano Cunego - sacrificed his own chances as soon as the first major break formed on lap 5 of 14. You couldn't help feeling, either, that Danilo Di Luca's exclusion was a backhanded blessing: gone was another chief from the ranks of the Indians, and Di Luca was frankly more useful in his surreal new role as team mascot, handing out water bottles at the end of every lap.

I'm afraid to say that the Italians' lack of qualms about allowing Di Luca to stay in Stuttgart says a lot about their attitude to crisis enveloping the sport. Still, it was hard not applaud Bettini, in spite of the rift with UCI president Pat McQuaid and the Stuttgart organisers which has dominated the week's headlines. No-one would now dispute that Bettini is by some distance the best rider of his generation, and that includes stage racers. As is often the case on his best days, it looked as though the biggest challenge "il Grillo" faced today was deciding how he wanted to win. Every one of the four riders who joined him in the winning break knew that they were beaten as soon as they rounded the final bend - and admitted as much tonight.

When an individual is as strong as Bettini was today, the only real answer is to stymie them early on, and the Italians' rivals failed miserably in that regard today. Usually so shrewd, the Spanish team seemed asleep in the first three quarters of the race. If they were saving themselves for the now customary Oscar Freire ambush, they should have stopped to check how he was feeling first. Freire was nowhere in sight when the key attacks started on the final lap.

But the golden raspberry went to the Dutch team. Michael Boogerd, bless him, has always been an Edam short of a cheeseboard, tactically speaking, so we shouldn't have expected miracles in Boogie's last world championships. More worrying was the way emerging star Robert Gesink got his timings wrong or the way almost the entire Dutch team spent several laps driving on the front to precisely no avail.

At least we ended the week talking about the racing. That, surely, is a cause worth celebrating with a litre of Pilsner or two.

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