Cobbled Classics beckon for Filippo Ganna, while Grand Tour future looms in the distance

Ineos' young Italian Filippo Ganna loves to spend time with family, and now he's found a second one in the British team. He tells James Shrubsall about living in lockdown while keeping one eye on future success

As a cyclist in Italy, where going outside for exercise was a no-no during the strictest weeks of lockdown, Filippo Ganna is likely in the minority because he has felt quite content.

While others have been climbing the walls, barely able to contain their desire to go on a long ride or get back to their jobs, the 23-year-old Team Ineos rider from Verbania in the country’s north-west has been cherishing time spent with family.

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“I’m really close with my family and I like to spend time with them. Ultimately, I have really enjoyed that,” he says. “Normally I might only be with them for, I don’t know, 50 days out of 300.”

That’s not to say he hasn’t been making the most of any lockdown cycling opportunities that have arisen: if you’ve been keeping up with the pros’ e-racing exploits you might be familiar with his virtual results. He was second behind Stefan Küng on day two of the Digital Swiss 5 ‘stage’ race on the Rouvy platform, demonstrating fine time trialling ability and a fondness for pedalling at six watts per kilo.

But whether or not e-racing is your bag, you will have found it hard to miss Ganna, who signed for Team Sky — which he now describes as his “second family” — at the end of 2018 from UAE-Team Emirates. At that point he had already won Paris-Roubaix Espoirs and a host of time trial titles, including National Championship jerseys at cadet, junior and under-23 level and silver at the U23 European Championships in 2016.

But in a parallel to your typical young Team GB up-and-comer, it was on the track that Ganna has really shone, having already won the World Championship individual pursuit twice when he signed for the British team, plus a hatful of team pursuit medals. Since then he has added two more world titles to his IP tally – most memorably at February’s Berlin Worlds by beating his own world record on the way to the final.

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His time was 4.01.934. It’s a blistering mark, of which Ganna’s countryman Luigi Roncaglia — who set the first official IP record of 4.52.0 back in 1964 — would no doubt have approved. It was quicker than the time set by the four-man Ukrainian team pursuit team over the same distance that week in Berlin and edges tantalisingly close to what is surely the holy grail of individual pursuiting, the four-minute barrier — a barrier which Ganna is confident he can break, given the right conditions.

Going under four

Filippo Ganna celebrates Gold in the men’s individual pursuit final at the UCI track cycling World Championship at the velodrome in Berlin on February 28, 2020 (Photo by Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images)

“I’d like to try but I know it’s really hard,” he says. “If I can arrive with good training for the individual pursuit, I can break four minutes.

“This last record I took after two days of team pursuit and after three days it’s really hard.”

And in competition, when gold is the goal, taking ‘do or die’ risks doesn’t always fit well into a carefully calculated and otherwise surefire strategy.

“You think, ‘I could go for it,’ but is it better to win the rainbow jersey or lose everything in the last lap because you died?” Ganna points out.

Despite its deletion from the Olympic Games after 2008, the individual pursuit has been making headlines over the last two years as first US rider Ashton Lambie and now Ganna set about taking chunks out of Aussie Jack Bobridge’s 4.10.534, set way back in 2011.

Passion for the Classics

Between August 2018 and February this year, the record has fallen six times. Lambie broke it three times, ultimately bringing it down to 4.05.423 at the Pan-American Games in Bolivia last September. Then Ganna took over in November at the Minsk World Cup round, clubbing it down first to 4.04.252 in qualifying before lowering it again in the final to 4.02.647.

Considering the Italian’s records were the first set at sea level since Bobridge, they are all the more impressive. He considers, too, that going to altitude may well help him go faster again, but says matter-of-factly: “I don’t know because I haven’t tried. But everybody says it’s easier.”

While he will doubtless return to the track, for now it’s the road he’s looking forward to concentrating on.

He is already a world-class time triallist, having taken a bronze medal at the Yorkshire Worlds last September, at the end of a season that saw him take ITT wins in the BinckBank Tour and Tour de La Provence, as well as third against the clock in the Tour de Romandie.

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“I like time trialling because it’s you and your bike and the time and the finish,” he says. “You can’t complain at the finish, ‘Oh, other guys have closed me into the barrier,’ or something. You’re alone. If you make a mistake it’s only your mistake.”

Of Yorkshire, he adds: “I think everyone when you have a racing number on your back you want to win. But when I got that bronze I was really happy because it was my first World Championships. OK, I know I need to do more work if I want to get on the top step of the podium, but I’m young and I know I have time to work on it.”

But despite all his success against the clock, both on the boards and out on the road, the Classics are where his heart lies. His childhood hero was Tom Boonen, he says, but now he wants to make his own Classics story — perhaps by winning the full-fat, elite version of the U23 Paris-Roubaix already in his palmarès: “I want to try,” he says of the Hell of the North.

“I like the Classics but it’s really hard. You need a lot of experience, you need a lot of legs and a lot of luck because with the cobblestones you can puncture or break the bike.”

Grand Tour potential

Filippo Ganna during the 3rd Velon Hammer Series 2019 (Photo by Luc Claessen/Getty Images)

Given his IP and time trial performances, Ganna appears to have the sort of throaty, muscle car-grade engine that would, given time and some careful refinement, allow him to turn his hand to just about anything. But, he says, three-week race ambition is a notion that’s parked for now: “The Grand Tours are really hard. After one week of a tour like Tirreno or something, I think, ‘Woah! How are the big guys doing two weeks more and getting better and better?’ It seems impossible. After one week I’m dead, and yet the other guys go better and better! It’s amazing.”

Should he want to follow the track-to-Grand Tour victory template he’s certainly in the right team as Ineos obviously have form there, a fact that isn’t lost on the Italian.

“Wiggins started with track and then changed his body to end up winning the Tour, and the same for Geraint Thomas. I don’t know if I can change, but for the next year I just want to go better and build my body. And when I’ve finished that, OK, if the team ask me if I want to have a go then why not?”

Right now that’s a bit of a moot point, what with the huge gap in racing due to coronavirus. But racing will resume in time and Ganna is clearly happy at Ineos.

“It’s like a second family,” he says, explaining how welcome the team made him feel. “I remember my first training camp, Luke Rowe saying, ‘Ah Filippo, how are you? If you have any problems you stick with me, don’t worry!’ It’s the same with other guys like Dylan [van Baarle] or G, or Froomey.”

When I suggest to him that he must be itching to get out and race again, there’s a long pause. He has already warned of not taking risks — Italy saw some desperate scenes early in the pandemic and, with the strict lockdown having only just been lifted, the idea of bumping shoulders in a bunch of 180 riders must grate. “I don’t know. We’ve started training, then we’ll start racing and we’ll see how the end of the season goes.”

In one form or another, 2020 will continue. It may not be cycling’s best vintage, but for Ganna, that’s OK. If there’s one thing you have when you’re a 23-year-old pro cyclist, it’s time. Expect him to make the most of it.

This feature originally appeared in the print edition of Cycling Weekly, on sale in newsagents and supermarkets, priced £3.25.