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Having guided Paolo Bettini to victory in the world road championship two weekends ago, Italian national coach Franco Ballerini is now turning his attention to his next major challenge, squaring up to his old sparring partners, Max Sciandri, Andrea Tafi, Silvio Martinello and Rolf Sorensen at the Manchester Velodrome in the Revolution track meeting on October 14.
Franco says that the competitive edge of past years, when all the riders lined up against each other in Classics such as Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, will be long forgotten. "There can't really be any rivalries," he says. "There might have been once upon a time but not any more. This thing in Manchester will just provide ammunition for mutual mickey-taking for a few months - or years - and prove how bad we've become and how cruel cycling is.!"
"Your name can be Armstrong," says Franco, "but if you stop putting the kilometres in, you'll soon become cannon-fodder. The bicycle is a nasty piece of work in that respect."
Ballerini says that he "pretty much learned to cycle on the track", but added that he moved into road racing "almost straight away." Best known for his two victories in Paris-Roubaix, Ballerini has bitter-sweet memories of the 'Hell of the North', having lost a famous sprint on the Roubaix track French veteran Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle in 1993. At the time he was inconsolable, but he made up for that disappointment with victory in 1995 and 1998.
"The track people most associate me with is obviously Roubaix," he admits. "And," he adds wistfully, "if I'd had a bit more track experience I reckon I'd have beaten Duclos in 1993."
All of that is history now and Ballerini is looking ahead to his first visit to the Manchester Velodrome. "I've never been to Manchester but I'm actually very keen to go and take a look at the British Cycling federation's facilities," he says. "Apparently they're very impressive."
There is also some racing to be done and Ballerini admitted that, as Revolution 13 has loomed large, he has been keeping an eye on his rivals' form. "Of the five of us," he says, "to look at him, you'd say that Martinello has stayed the fittest, but then he's almost never touched a bike since the day he retired. This should be a great leveller because, in theory, with his experience on the track, Silvio should beat us all 10-nil."
So if Martinello's track experience will stand him in good stead, who's the weakest link? Diplomatically, Ballerini pauses, before picking out Tour de France star turned TV pundit, Rolf Sorensen. Franco seems to think that all those press buffets on the Tour have caught up with the blond Dane. "Rolf is maybe the one - how can I put this? - with the most meat on him," he says. "But then, paradoxically, he's the one who perhaps spends most time on his bike.
"Max is probably somewhere in between Silvio and Rolf," Ballerini says of Sciandri. "I'm actually looking forward to seeing how Max measures up when we're all relatively unfit; I've always thought that he had natural talent and that he should have won much more than he did in his career. I'm not playing mind games - honestly - but if you could have combined my dedication and Max's ability, you'd have had a superstar."
Tafi, Ballerini says, has "stayed in pretty good shape, although, if you didn't know better you'd probably say the same about me." All of which brings us to the man himself: has he still got what it takes?
Franco pauses before responding. "I weigh about 80 kilos, which isn't far off what I weighed at my peak," he says. "It's just that the muscles have been replaced by a whole load of fat. And we all know that muscles weigh more than fat.
"I still ride my bike a fair bit, but it's very seasonal, depending on my work commitments. Because of the Worlds, I've hardly sat on my bike in the last few weeks, but before that it was going well. I was going out a few times a week for two or three hours and. I must say that I was getting pretty good again."
Franco will have a chance to prove this on October 14, particularly in the showcase event: a four-man road pursuit against fellow ex-pros Tafi, Sorensen and Sciandri. For information on the full race programme and rider list visit www.cyclingrevolution.com. Tickets can be bought on the website or by calling the ticket line on 07005 942 579 or the Manchester Velodrome on 0161 223 2244.
PIC BY TDWSPORT.COM