Ballerini: The Real Hero of Zolder?
– By Gordon Cameron
Thanks to an extraordinary team effort, we’re going to be blessed with the spectacle of Mario Cipollini in the World Champion’s jersey next season. The rainbow bands picked out against pristine white will mean so much to Cipo when he comes to the races he loves such as Milan-San Remo and the Giro. With no sign of his powers failing, Cipo can dominate next year as he has in 2002.
But someone else basking in the warm glow of post-Worlds success might be better advised to follow Laurent Jalabert into retirement. Coach Franco Ballerini has achieved what no Italian has even looked remotely capable of doing in the last decade – provided the man management skills, tactical guile and passion to knit together a disparate collection of some of the most talented, but egotistical, bike racers on the planet. He outlined a common goal, told them it was their duty to work for it, and pull for one sole leader. Whether he can ever do the same again must be something even he knows can’t be taken for granted.
Ballerini had the guts to say no to such stars as Bartoli and Casagrande; the guts to look at Cipollini’s form and provide him with the lead-out men to help the ‘Lion King’ achieve his dream.
“Everybody in the team did an extraordinary job and took their responsibility because we were convinced that it would end in a bunch sprint,” said a rather humble Cipo in the aftermath, before inferring where the main credit was due. “Franco Ballerini created a good ambience in the team. In the beginning I was afraid something would go wrong, but everybody did their job professionally.”
The entire Squadra Azzuri kept Mario out of trouble, they neutralised every move, and Ballerini must have felt like he was watching a miracle unfold. No ‘tactical blunders’, no unfortunate ‘lapses of communication’. Just dedication to the task in hand. Petacchi, Lombardi and Scirea were all there at the finish to ensure Cipollini had the simple task of finishing the job off. If you look at pictures of the finish you can clearly see the little figure of Paolo Bettini with his arms in the air. Celebrating. Celebrating a win for an Italian team-mate.
It’s not all about money, although you can be sure the Italians will have been well rewarded for their team work. If just one link in the chain weakens, just one mind starts to think, “Actually, I don’t care if he wins,” then the whole enterprise goes for nothing. Ballerini had been working on the squad as individuals to ensure that Cipollini became the first Italian World Champion since Gianni Bugno in 1992. The Zolder course was so flat that it made Ballerini’s job a little easier – he could afford to pick a team of workhorses, almost certain in the knowledge that a sprint finish would happen. But to keep minds focussed on the job … that’s something else.
Now he can sit back, put his feet up, and consider whether he wants to face the inevitable clamour for attention in the run-up to the 2003 Worlds in Hamilton, Ontario. My guess is that it might just be too much hassle. Franco, you’ve done yourself proud. No-one could blame you for walking away.