This time I was much more relaxed than usually. It was my first time at a BMC, I was curious, excited, not stressed at all. Who could I meet here that I know? Martin Kohler at worst! I mean... that wouldn't be anything upseting... at least for me. Who was going to be at the press conference table was a complete surprise like the definitive roster for Milano San Remo. Gilbert had finished Tirreno Adriatico but his performance had been disappointing. Thor Hushovd was told to be sick....
I entered the press room and went to take a place in the first row, just in front of the empty table. Earlier I introduced myself to the BMC press oficer: "I'm Ilaria Pranzini. IlariaMe. By Allez!", "Ah yes! You are new in the list. Glad to meet you." I glimpsed around and realized I was AGAIN the only woman. In add I was – at that moment – the only Italian. Some others – one or two, not a mass – arrived when the conference was already on. The most of us looked – or better sounded – Belgian, then I detected some French (they could have been Belgians too). On the table there were water bottles and candies: a photographer took a candy, imitated soon by a reporter. But the sweetest surpise was left for the end....
At 5.50 pm with a Swiss punctuality mitigated by a nice American easyness the press conference begane. We agreed to talk in English and the press officer introduced the four men at the table: "I guess you already know them" he said "Anyway those are - from your right - Philppe Gilbert, General Manager Jim Ochowicz, Chief Director Sportif John Lelangue and Alessandro Ballan". They looked relaxed, very shy Ballan, surprisingly modest Gilbert. That was the first time I met him so I was really curious: Gilbert, you know, isn't – wasn't? - a rider I like... His way to race, voracious and attacking, is exciting, no doubt, but his way to face the fame looked often arrogant. Let me say there I saw a different Gilbert. And now I like him more. Lelangue I knew from races: often you see him there. Ochowicz I think I had never seen before. Of course I had heard about him (not all good things). I got impressed by the power of his presence: I could compare him to some strong small dog, all muscles and control. That is the impression he gave me, right of wrong. Lelangue at the opposite looked relaxed, confortable and in some way resigned. People play often a role in press conferences, tell a story. I don't want to say the 'lie'... Well, not here. All looked very very plain and open.
"We had to do some changes in the roster dued to some illness" Lelangue says "That's cycling. There are crashes, sicknesses... you can't ever know. But we are still confident." That is the BMC mantra today. I'm not going to tell it here but we have strategy and it's adequate to this group. Some of them have got a good experience of the race – Hincapie, Shar, Ballan... It's a good group."
Ballan raced Milano San Remo many times: 4th in 2011, 8th in 2006 when he shared with the winner Pozzato the decisive move. He doesn't hide himself: "I feel good, did a very good Tirreno, has many hours in my legs. My condition is the same as last year. I want an hard race and we will try to make it so." Ballan speacks a simple and correct English in a barely audible voice, he looks often toward the press officer like asking for confirmation and his smile is good and shy in his chinese-like face. He's wearing a bracelet in the national flag colors: a memory maybe of the day he changed them in a rainbow.
Gilbert seems a normal guy of his age here not an hero. Last time I saw him in Liège. To be honest it's the first time I see him not on a podium or a bike. The Gazzetta gave him a 3, a very bad mark, after a very anonymous Tirreno. "I feel not good" he says "My shape isn't like it should be but I will do my best." The fury of the press hurted him a bit and he looks surprised: "A bad period isn't a reason to shot me that way!" He doesn't protest, he's just sorry. Not easy when everybody stop glorifying you and start insulting. In my opinion both glorifying and insulting are NOT the way the press should talk about sport (and people). "I must turn the page. I'm motivated, stay optimist and confident. I start without the leadership and must be realistic. But I'm still motivated" he repeats "I will be freer. Others are the favourites: Sagan and Cancellara, then there is a lot of guys who can try something. Milano San Remo is unpredictable."
Jim Ochowicz sums up the BMC season sofar: "We had a god training camp in Denia, then we performed well in some races like TDU, Qatar and Oman, finally Strade Bianche, Paris-Nice and Tirreno. Everybody is good, we have got a good team for Milano San Remo, we have got some expectations too, about individual performances. We are not the favourites but we want to be able to say BMC was in the race. Our goals come later in the season." You feel the strenght in his voice, the firmness of the command even in that realistic aproach. But he remains opaque to me.
Belgians asks Gilbert about his 'sickness': it was a bit a mystery, we have been told he wasn't good but not exactly why. The point was... he ignored it! "I was having pain night and day, I kept racing but it was hard. I felt my shape was there but that pain really made it impossible. I couldn't eat, couldn't feed on bike... Yesterday I went to a specialist, a dentist and he fixed it. It's wonderful to be back to normal." So after many tries – and pains – he found out it was a tooth. The dentist had to kill it and now the pain is over. "I didn't know it was so serious when I started in Tirreno" Gilbert explains "I thought it was goin to passes but the pain got worse instead. " Problem solved but not completely: "Normally Milano San Remo is my first big goal, now no. I'm not ready."
If Gilbert just recovered, Hushovd just gets sick. Quite a disaster. Ochowicz doesn't deny: "Hushovd is a miss" he means 'a failure' of course ;) "Now the priority is to have him healty again."
Gilbert agrees that "the strategy must change." He sees nothing positive in missing Hushovd, he would have been an important support in such a long race. Moreover now, when Gilbert knows his shape isn't the best "Anyway my season isn't finished yet! It's just begun! After Liège I'll sum up not before. Last season has been surpsing, it will be hard to repeat it and it would be unfair to criticize me because of that. I mean not only the press, also the fans....It's the bad side of it..." 'It' is the 'Fame'. Another famous Belgian was in Milano too for to get another prize (by the Gazzetta) in the Giro Hall of Fame. That Merckx who looks like Gilbert. And the opposite is also true. Sofar. Till October 2011. The guy here is just a guy who kept racing with a terrible pain at his tooth in a terrible edition of Tirreno: chapeau. That's also a victory. Maybe the Gazzetta's mark must be corrected... In add the press officer explains that Gilbert in 2012 is still in his average if you look at his victories at this point of the year.
No Hushovd, half a Gilbert... Ballan is forced to be the BMC leader. Why not? He's good, is Italian, that race suits him well. "More opportinities without Thor? I would prefer to have him in the race" he points out "To break away on the Poggio? I tryed in 2006 with Pozzato and he won. It's a long race. All is possible and my condition is good."
The Hushovd Gate is popular and Lelangue has to say it loud: "In Milano San Remo you need to be at a certain level. Hushovd is not, couldn't train in the last days so it made no sense to bring him. We decided yesterday night, we waited till yesterday but in the morning he still couldn't train. So we took that hard decision." Sorry, not desperate. As they say: still confident.
The Italian journalist ask a question in Italian, about the state of Italian cycling. Out of topyc but Ballan answers: "Not a good moment for the Italian cycling, especially in classics. Better in stages races, where there are Nibali and others. We see some young riders are arriving, they already are play a main role in many races but not get results yet..." It's an accurate sketch in my opinion. The next question, in Italian again, is again out of topyc:
"What do you think about the Lampre situation?" Ballan doesn't understand what is about but Lelangue stops it quite annoyed: "That press conference is about Milano San Remo and anyway it isn't an habit to comment about other teams. At least we don't." Right.
The last questions are for Gilbert, about the Classiche Momunmento. You know Cancellara wants to win them all, Gilbert already won Lombardia, Liège and Fleche. "But I don't care. I just want to win." All. Like the other famous Belgian. You see. "Every race is different. I try to win always and I already tried to win Milano San Remo. It's hard. Harder then Liège in a certain way. In Liège you see the victory coming, you know it the day before, here is last minute. There is a lot of pressure. You can't really plann it. My favourites are Sagan and Cancellara, but there is plenty of guys who can try. And don't forget Freire. Never forget him!"
We will not!
Writing down my notes I was surprised by the maturity of Gilbert's analysis. He has got a brilliant mind not only good legs. The sickness and the bad press he got will probably make him grow up. I don't know how he will performe in Milano San Remo but for sure I changed my opinion about him. In better.
After the press conference and before to run to catch my taxi I asked Ballan an interview and he agreed so stay tuned: I'll send him some questions after the race.
The sweetest surprise was a sponsorized chocolate! A BMC sponsor is in fact a chocolate producer :) good idea! Gnam gnam! That really is a GOOD team!
I have more pics to post but Bloger is telling me my room is finished so... we will see... :P