As one of the sport’s traditional superpowers, Italy boasts both depth and breadth in its past cycling contenders. And despite failing to win it, there were positive signs on display at the Giro d’Italia as Italy showed strength in numbers on GC, in field sprints, and from breakaways. At the Tour de France, a similar result is possible, but far from expected as several questions remain regarding the nation’s participants and teams.
First and foremost among those questions regards Ivan Basso’s gamble in forfeiting a defense of his 2010 Giro title to prepare exclusively for the Tour. After a bad training crash on Mt. Etna and a lackluster Criterium du Dauphiné, the Liquigas rider appears to be struggling. Maybe Basso’s bluffing–or maybe he’ll ride himself into shape by the second week–but the signs are not good. Perhaps it’s a good thing that his Liquigas-Cannondale team has an unheralded, but deep roster including youngster Daniel Oss. Oss finished his first Tour de France last year, placing well in several stages and winning the combativity award for Stage 18. Look for Oss on flatter stages and in breakaways during the second and third week.
As for Basso, he appears in need of a miracle at this point, as there’s little if no indication that the Italian has what it takes to contend with the likes of Alberto Contador, Andy Schleck—or even the Anglo-American contingent of Cadel Evans, Bradley Wiggins, Chris Horner, or Levi Leipheimer. Yes the Tour’s a long race and other men–namely Denis Menchov last year– have enjoyed sub par springs only to excel in July. But for a mediocre time trialist who seems to have lost a bit of punch in the mountains, anything other than a low top-10 placing might be a bit much to expect.
On the other hand, there is cause for optimism within Italy’s other squad, Lampre-ISD, who brings a two-pronged attack to France led by Damiano Cunego and Alessandro Petacchi. After another lackluster classics campaign, Cunego skipped the Giro to prepare exclusively for the Tour. Judging from his performance in the Tour de Suisse, his form seems to be improving. Despite being denied a stage win twice and wearing the leader’s jersey until losing it in the final TT.
Last year’s Tour de France saw Cunego in nearly every possible breakaway, but the Italian came away with no wins. While he may be trying too hard, he has certainly maintained a winning mentality. More worrying however, in last weekend’s nationals he wilted like the delicate flower his detractors say he is. He claimed it was due to the heat, but with the expectation of a very hot Tour de France, Lampre needs to find a better hydration strategy.
On the other hand, Petacchi’s pre-Giro altitude training with teammate Michele Scarponi seems to have paid-off as far as his climbing is concerned as beat Manxman Mark Cavendish by 3 minutes in the double ascent up Mt. Etna. Can Petacchi translate his new climbing form into late-race sprint wins or another green jersey? If—like last year—he comes to the Tour with a warmed-up set of legs and a dialed-in sprint train, he’s one of only a handful riders capable of challenging the Brit.
Man of the Hour: Lampre’s Damiano Cunego is beginning to look as if he’s unable to come through in big races—he’ll get his chance to redeem himself this July. Week 1 offers several interesting options for the Italian, but the Stage 8 finish atop Super-Besse might suit him the best.
On the Hot Seat: Ivan Basso claims the Tour de France is not an obsession, yet he still chose to build his season around the 3-week race. While it’s unlikely that the Italian would have fared any better against Alberto Contador in May’s Giro d’Italia, it’s always a risky proposition to skip a title defense in one’s home grand tour in favor of the Tour de France.
Up-and-Comer: Daniel Oss finished in the top-10 three times during last year’s Tour de France. The youngster is considered one of the Italy’s future classics stars—a Tour stage would be a great place to start. Watch out for the young time trialist Adriano Malori—riding his second Tour de France—as well.