The Italian squadra has gathered in Imola, hoping that home advantage can give it an edge in the elite men’s and women’s road race World Championships.
Italy can count on Filippo Ganna as a likely medal winner in the men’s time trial on Friday and the women’s team is always competitive in the road race. However, Italy always expects a rainbow jersey in the men’s road race, with the memories of Vittorio Adorni winning the world title in Imola in 1968 sparking nostalgia for when Italy was one of cycling's dominant nations and further raising expectations of success.
However, Italy has not won the elite men’s road race world title since Alessandro Ballan won alone in Varese. Paolo Bettini took back to back titles in 2006 and 2007 and Mario Cipollini won on the Zolder motor racing circuit in 2002 but since then there has been 12 years of disappointment and podium places, the latest from Matteo Trentin in Yorkshire last year after he was beaten in the sprint by Mads Pedersen.
National coach Davide Cassani has now selected 13 national squads. They have won European titles with Elia Viviani, Trentin and this year Giacomo Nizzolo but the rainbow jersey has eluded them.
Vincenzo Nibali is the natural team leader in Imola but has serious doubts about his form and ability to be competitive against likes of Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar, Wout van Aert of Belgium and anyone else who raced the Tour de France.
Cassani is hoping that Diego Ulissi, Damiano Caruso and even 21-year-old neo-pro Andrea Bagioli, who has won two races with Deceuninck-QuickStep, can step up if Nibali falters.
Also in the squad of eight riders are Fausto Masnada, Gianluca Brambilla, with veteran Giovanni Visconti and 2019 Tour of Flanders winner Alberto Bettiol. Matteo Fabbro and Nicola Conci are the two reserves. Davide Formolo is out of action after fracturing his collarbone at the Tour de France while Giulio Ciccone is recovering from the COVID-19 virus.
The Italian men’s team rode three laps of the 28km circuit on Wednesday, testing their bikes and gearing for the parcours.
“They were able to realise just how hard the circuit is,” Cassani told Tuttobici after the ride.
The steep climbs and country roads reminded Alberto Bettiol of racing in Belgium.
“It’s interesting… There’s little chance to recover on the circuit apart from the section through Riolo Terme and the final two kilometres in the motor racing circuit. The Gallisterna climb (1.3km with an average of 10.9 per cent) reminds of the steep hills of Flanders.
“There’s nowhere to catch your breath,” Bagioli said. “Lap after lap it hurts your legs. Where’s the best place to attack? For sure on the Gallisterna climb, perhaps not on the steep part but just after on the false flat.”
There were 300,000 people that filled the Imola circuit and the Tre Monti climb to see Adorni win 1968. Cassani was seven years old at the time and seeing the race sparked his love for cycling. He went on to race as a professional and stayed in the sport, first as a television commentator and now as national coach.
Cassani would love to hear the Italian national anthem ring out across the Imola motor racing circuit yet again but is aware Italy faces an uphill task steeper than the short climbs on the Imola circuit.
“The race will be very hard, there’s almost no flat roads, with 550 metres altitude each lap,” he explained in an interview before the race.
“The climbs are not long but they are challenging, especially the second with its 1,300-metre steep wall. It means that in the end it will become very selective and the favourites could be riders like Julian Alaphilippe, Jakob Fuglsang and Wout van Aert.
“2020 was hard for everybody because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I hope it will never happen again.
“I’d hoped we could have had a better approach but Davide Formolo broke his collarbone and Ciccone had COVID-19, so I probably lost two riders who could be very important for the national team.”