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Few people in cycling would admit to harbouring nostalgia for the 1998 Tour de France, yet, seven years on, it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that a race won by Marco Pantani but dominated by scandal represented the end of an Italian affair with the Grande Boucle.
Granted, when the late Pantani stepped onto the podium in Paris, he became the first Italian to win Tour since 1965 winner Felice Gimondi, whose plaudits 'il Pirata' accepted on the Champs Elyses. Pantani, though, was only one of four Italian stage winners and three top 10 finishers that year. Within three years, Italians had disappeared from the top 10 altogether, only to return there in 2003 courtesy of Ivan Basso. The CSC rider remains his native land's only top 10 Tour finisher this millennium.
For any other cycling nation except perhaps Spain, these statistics would be seen as the inevitable conclusion of the sport's globalisation, the emergence of a brave New World led by Kazakhs and Slovaks, Australians and Americans. It's also statistics, however, which confirm that there has been something uncanny about the Italians' lack of chemistry with the Tour in recent years.
Italy leads the ProTour rankings by nation by a huge margin of more than 200 points, boasts four ProTour teams, and Italian professionals won more races than their French and Belgian counterparts combined in 2004. However, before Lorenzo Bernucci's stage win yesterday many would have been willing to bet that the 27-man Italian delegation would leave the Tour on July 24 without a single victory to its name.
While some, like Damiano Cunego, have been kept away by injury and others, like Alessandro Petacchi and Gilberto Simoni, apparently by ambivalence, those Italians who have made it to France seem either to lack confidence or ambition. The Liquigas trio of Franco Pellizotti, Dario Cioni and Stefano Garzelli all consider themselves potential Giro d'Italia winners but none expects to contend for the podium here.
Paolo Savoldelli's self-sacrifice seems less wasteful when you consider that Discovery Channel's Giro champion has never finished higher than 33rd in the Tour. And the Domina Vacanze, Lampre-Caffita and Fassa Bortolo teams simply have no one, Italian or otherwise, even remotely fancied to trouble Armstrong, Vinokourov and co.
Having guided Pantani to a Giro-Tour double in '98, Lampre boss Giuseppe Martinelli knows that Italian success at home and abroad don't have to be mutually exclusive. Nonetheless, Martinelli told procycling this morning that Italian riders currently lack "that something extra to do well at the Tour".
"People need to come to terms with the fact that in Italy, at the moment, we don't have many world class stage-race riders" Martinelli argued. "There are maybe only one or two. Also, we have so many important races in Italy, with their own history and prestige, that the Tour can never be the obsession that it is for riders in other countries, and that it needs to be. Basso, for instance, did the Giro this year but his focus is still very much the Tour. I'm convinced that he will ride a great race.
"Even if I'd brought Damiano [Cunego] here, I would never have dreamed that he could compete for the podium or top five. If he'd managed to finish seventh, eighth or ninth it would have been almost incidental. I intended this year to be the start of a long apprenticeship for him," Martinelli said of the 2004 Giro winner.
Quick Step directeur sportif Luca Guercilena pointed out another problem. "In Italy, there are almost no stage races in the second half of the year," he said in Lunville this morning. "As a result, our riders' stage-racing culture is being lost. Also, as juniors and amateurs, our riders do almost no time trials."
Basso excepted, Liquigas pair Garzelli and Cioni almost certainly offer Italy its best chance of representation among the top 10 in Paris, and both spoke hopefully of achieving that goal this morning. Garzelli is convinced that the form he showed in winning the Giro in 2000 or finishing second in 2003 would earn him a place in the Tour's top five. "I expect to ride more aggressively than I would during a Giro and I'd love to win the polka-dot jersey: to my mind that's the second most prestigious jersey in world cycling behind the yellow," said the former Mapei and Mercatone Uno man this morning.
Cioni, meanwhile, believes that he will pick his way through the general classification from 44th at 3-24 down into the top 15 or 10 by the time the race reaches Paris.
It may not be enough to stop them hankering after the heady days of 1998, but, for a while yet, Italian Tour fans might have to be grateful for such small mercies.
PIC BY TDWSPORT.COM