Thursday, February 11, 2010

Chapeau Franco

Franco Ballerini & Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle, Paris Roubaix
As I flicked on the TV to an ESPN classic program the Sunday before last, little did I think the week following I would hear the tragic news that the great champion, Franco Ballerini had been killed in a motorsport accident.

There I am watching the 1993 Paris Roubaix, the famous Hell of the North, the queen of the classics one day race.

It's something like 30km to go, when Franco Ballerini launches a devastating attack, so hard does he attack, that he is matched only by the Frenchman Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle, a previous winner of the race a year earlier. Duclos-Lassalle is on the edge of his seat, grimily hanging onto Ballerini's back wheel for all he is worth, as they race through the dust and cobbles. Franco has the screw turned right up.

Through the final pave' sections they go, Ballerini is a train, Duclos-Lassalle can not take a turn off him and more than once I thought he would crack and leave Franco alone on his quest to victory at the legendary finish on Roubaix's velodrome. At almost 39 years of age the wily Duclos-Lassalle digs so deep to stay with the Italian, maybe on a handful of occasions does he hit the front, feel the breeze on his face and let the great Franco rest his legs for a moment.

Inside the final 3 km and Franco still has the hammer down despite a 2 minute and 9 second margin back to the chasers.

Only inside the closing kilometers of this monumental 260km race does Franco ease up and ask Duclos to take the front, but no, the Frenchman is not interested in riding into Roubaix with any integrity. Two, three times, Franco asks Duclos-Lassalle to take the front, but he continues to show his disinterest, and they turn onto the velodrome with some 500 metres to go.

It's such a classic strongmans sprint finish. So close that initially Ballerini thinks he has taken the win to add to his palmares, but no, Duclos-Lassalle is declared the winner in the photo finish result. There he is, smiles before the cameras, winners bouquet, wife and children by his side. At that moment I guess poor Franco has his head hung low, feeling the crush of bitter disappointment as he heads towards the showers.

Franco's robbed, and from that moment on my respect for Duclos-Lassalle turning it up to win Roubaix at 38 years of age is gone, hero to villain 17 years later.

And then Franco is gone, Italian cycling looses its charismatic national team manager to a tragic accident.

'Chapeau Franco' the French should be saying, as the rest of us already have our hats off and our heads bowed.

Franco Ballerini, head down

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