A new Italian renaissance?

There has been much written in the mainstream press on Italy’s current (and supposed) malaise. You can read some of the articles here, here, and here. Indeed, this very blog commented last year on the state of Italian cycling. There are good reasons to believe that these things are cyclical. In the spirit of the current Italian focus of this blog, your author would like to predict an excellent year for Italian cycling, starting with Milano-Sanremo.

Milano-Sanremo has always been a stalking ground for foreign riders. It took three years before an Italian rider won the race, with Lucien Petit-Breton from France winning the first edition in 1907, then Cyrille van Hauwaert of Belgium taking the second in 1908 before Luigi Ganna took a victory for the host nation the following year. Despite plenty of subsequent Italian victories, the top step of the podium from around the mid-1950s hosted an increasingly foreign cast of riders. Ahead of the 1970 race, no Italian had won since 1953.

That year, Eddy Merckx had just won Paris-Nice in fine style but, according to John Wilcockson’s reporting in his book World of Cycling, was suffering from a saddle sore and his form was uncertain. He had won the year before, as well as the editions in 1966 and 1967. There were a number of other favourites, “nearly all of them Dutch and Belgian,” according to Wilcockson. But it was Michele Dancelli¬† who slipped away from an 18-man breakaway group to take the win for his Molteni team and Italy.

It was a masterful application of tactics. At a prime sprint point (at Loano, with 70 kilometres still to race), Dancelli asked his teammate in the break, Chiappano, to lead him out. The rest of the breakaway was strung out single file and only saw part of what unfolded. Chiappano took the sprint with Dancelli on his wheel, then drifted back and Dancelli continued up the road. Some in the breakaway only saw Chiappano go and did not realize that Dancelli had gotten away.

Unfortunately for the main breakaway, the news of Dancelli’s break was not broadcast on race radio until some 40 minutes after he had slipped away, “the sort of thing that could only happen in Italy,” Wilcockson notes. So by the time a chase got organized, led by Roger de Vlaeminck ,Dancelli had enough of a gap to hold on until the finish. Wilcockson again: “The noise was deafening as he came freewheeling down that famous street, his arms raised in pleasure, honor and emotion, with his rascally face a mass of smiles and joyful tears.”

He was 2 minutes ahead of his chasers, some of whom were still in the dark as to his victory. Sprinting hard for second place, Gerben Karstens thought he had won the race. As Heinrich Haussler knows, second place in Milano-Sanremo can be a bigger disappointment than even a more minor place; to come so close to victory must engender a particular frustration. Roger de Vlaeminck no doubt understood this sentiment; he placed second to Merckx in 1969 before having to wait until 1973 to win (although he would go on to win the race twice more). But pity even more Giuseppe Saronni, placing second three years in a row (1978-80) before two years in the wilderness and finally his win in 1983.

Danelli wins alone in Sanremo (Guy Didieu pic)

Italians to watch in 2012

This year, your author’s pick for victory is Daniele Bennati. The Italian sprinter from Arezzo has had numerous sprint victories in his (to date) ten-year professional career. Having switched from Liquigas to RadioShack-Nissan (then Leopard Trek) in 2011, he has already shown some good form this season at the Tour Down Under. An outside chance for La Primavera, not particularly renowned for getting over the hills, this could well be Bennati’s year.

Liquigas now has room for its younger Italian sprinters to come to the fore. Watch out for Elia Viviani, just 23 years old and with a solid background on the track. Two victories so far this season, at the Tour de San Luis and at the GP Costa degli Etruschi. Less a pure sprinter, Daniel Oss also has a solid track background although is more favoured for the Spring Classics. He is even more of an outsider than Viviani for Milano-Sanremo but will be well worth following as racing shifts shortly to Flanders.

Outside of the Italian teams, Italy also has sprinter Davide Appollonio riding for Team Sky. Another youngster, just 22, Appollonio has had some good results, including a stage win and the overall points jersey at the Tour of Luxembourg in 2011. These are the young riders that will hopefully be doing Italy proud in the season ahead, putting some controversial years behind them. If it hadn’t been co-opted by Silvio Berlusconi as the name of his political party, now might have been the time to say, Forza Italia!

Will this be the victory salute at MSR this year? (AAP pic)