Happy birthday Ale Jet

Image courtesy of Lampre-ISD

Image courtesy of Lampre-ISD

Buon compleanno Alessandro!

I’ve had to bake a slightly larger birthday cake than usual to accommodate Alessandro’s 39 candles. I know, it’s hard to believe that the blonde, blue-eyed, softly spoken Ligurian is still racking up the wins as he starts his 18th (and possibly last) season in the professional ranks. Let’s have a wander down memory lane looking at the career highlights of one of the sport’s most successful sprinters.

In the Grand Tours, Alessandro has 27 stage wins (five revoked) in the Giro d’Italia, six in the Tour de France and 20 in the Vuelta a Espana. His total of Grand Tour wins puts him in third place behind the great Eddy Merckx (65) and Mario Cipollini (57). He was the first rider to win at least two stages in each of the three Grand Tours in a single year. He’s also won all three points jerseys and graced the maglia rosa for seven days.

Overall, with 183 wins in the bag he’s fourth on the all-time list of Italian winners just behind Francesco Moser (273), Giuseppe Saronni (193) and Cipollini (189).

Fresh-faced and before he became Ale Jet (image courtesy of Cycling Archives)

Fresh-faced and before he became Ale Jet (image courtesy of Cycling Archives)

Alessandro was a keen swimmer and track athlete before turning to cycling in his early teens. He started winning in his rookie year and racked up the victories until he turned professional in 1996 with Scrigno-Blue. He recorded his maiden win at the 1998 Tour de Langkawi followed, amazingly, by the King of the Mountains jersey in the same race in 1999!

Wins came thick and fast two years later while wearing the famous navy-and-white of Fassa Bortolo. He won his first Grand Tour stages at the Vuelta in 2000. In 2003 he romped to victory in stages in all three of the Grand Tours, while 2004 was his most prolific year with nine wins at the Giro and four at the Vuelta. It cemented his reputation as the peloton’s leading sprinter as he and his train dominated the sprint finishes of nearly every race he entered. In 2005 he realised a long-held dream, when having trained to shed weight over the winter months, he won Milan-San Remo.

The following season, after the collapse of Fassa Bortolo, Alessandro moved to Milram with another prolific sprint winner, Erik Zabel. Alessandro was runner-up in Milan-San Remo but his year then took a turn for the worse when he was forced to abandon the Giro after fracturing his knee-cap. Having missed the Tour, he was almost back to form at the Vuelta when he took out his frustration out on the team bus after being boxed in on stage 15. The bus won and Alessandro fractured his hand, missing the remainder of the Vuelta and the world championships in Salzburg. A shamefaced Alessandro admitted afterwards:

I was very angry. After being injured so many months, I had the concrete possibility to finally return to success. I wanted to give my season a sense at all cost, after I had to abandon the Giro d’Italia early because of my accident.

In any case, I admit it was a stupid gesture. I’m sorry and I ask my teammates and the team management to forgive me. But the anger was so intense that I couldn’t control myself. I condemn my gesture very severely, but I am just a man, not a machine, and sometimes men make mistakes. Today I made a mistake, no doubt.

This wasn’t the first or only instance of Alessandro venting his frustration. Back in 2003 he had a bout of fisticuffs during a stage of the Giro with Audris Naudus (CCC-Polsat). The latter was expelled from the race while Alessandro was given a time penalty and docked points by the [partisan] race organisers. In 2011 there was another incident in the final sprint where Alessandro appeared to punch boxer turned cyclist Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ) on the first stage of the Tour of Turkey.

In the 2007 Giro, overenthusiastic use of salbutamol, an asthma medication for which he had a therapeutic use exemption certificate, earned him a 12-month ban and the loss of some prestigious victories including ones at the Giro. He returned to the peloton with Pro Continental team LPR Brakes with a fifth consecutive win in GP Costa Degli Etruschi and victories in the Giro and Tour of Britain which earned him a berth at Lampre in 2010. He repaid their faith with a podium in Milan-San Remo and a stage in the Tour de Suisse before winning the green jersey at the Tour, becoming only the second Italian rider to achieve this feat since Franco Bitossi in 1968.

In 2011, well-served and well-led by wingman Danilo Hondo, Alessandro proved he still had what it takes when he beat Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) on stage two in the Giro.

2012 was not such a great year for Alessandro with his only victories coming in the Tours of Bavaria and Norway. He’d forsaken the Giro to concentrate on the Tour where, having fallen heavily on the Croix de la Fer, he finished outside the time limit.

He’s set to leave behind his poor 2012 season and hopefully retire on a high:

2013 is going to be a very important season for me. I would like to prove myself that I can still be a player and I think I can. I believe I can give great satisfaction to the team.

Expect Alessandro to start his 2013 campaign at the early Italian races in February where, although he’s lost the services of Grega Bole and Hondo, he will be able to impart experience and knowledge to Lampre’s recent hires of Roberto Ferrari from Androni Giocattoli-Venezuela and veteran Maximiliano Richeze from Team Nippo.

I’m going to leave you with a little photo-montage put together by one of Ale Jet’s many fans.

Now Alessandro, can you manage to blow out all those candles in one go or do you need some help?