WORDS: Ian Cleverly | PHOTOS: Paolo Ciaberta
13 minute read
“He’s a guy who, give him another year or two under his belt, these races are perfectly suited to,” Jonathan Vaughters says to camera for the EF Pro Cycling film prior to the 2019 Tour of Flanders.
The team boss probably stated something rather more upbeat regarding the chances of his long-serving Classics stalwarts Sebastian Langeveld and Sep Vanmarcke, but it would not have made the final edit. Surplus to requirements. The pre-race script was ripped up, then put through the shredder.
A 25-year-old Tuscan in his sixth season of professional racing had just landed the biggest win of his career – indeed, what would rank as the biggest win of most riders’ careers. But this one contained a delightfully unique and unusual twist. It is, to date, the only victory of Alberto Bettiol’s career.
Not a single cheeky Tirreno stage (a second place earlier the same year), nor a Tour of Poland GC (third), not even a saucy end-of-season rescuer at the GP de Québec (fourth). Racing virgins do not win Flanders. Not until now.
Belief is a word often bandied about by athletes. Coaches spend hours with arms around the shoulders of their charges, bolstering self-confidence; instilling a sense of capability; adding a killer instinct to go with the raw talent; making the difference between a middlemarker and a champion.
But Bettiol? A man with zero wins and a smattering of minor placings in unremarkable races over the years, up against the Classics crème de la crème? No one saw that coming. Or no one bar Andreas Klier, EF’s canny German directeur sportif – himself a Flanders runner-up in 2005 and Gent-Wevelgem winner in 2003 – who lives and breathes these brutal races. And, by the powers of persuasion and a fortnight in the persuasive company of his mentor, this young Italian stood on the start line in Antwerp with a crucial hitherto missing ingredient. Belief.
Here come the Quick Steppers
“He is in love with Flanders, with the northern Classics,” Bettiol says of Klier. “He is our guide, our light. The days before, he is so important for us. Without him, not only for me but for the others, it would be difficult.
“We stayed two weeks [in Belgium] with Andreas, and he tried to convince me to anticipate. He pushed me to try. ‘In your life you have never tried, never attacked. Don’t think so much, just go and never look back.’”
Tough love or home truths? Either way, when Bettiol made his stunning move halfway up the Kwaremont with 18km remaining, he went all-in, sweeping up the remnants of a previous break – including team-mate Vanmarcke – and cresting the hill alone. A quick glance over his shoulder (despite Klier’s instructions to the contrary) to appraise the situation was all the confirmation he needed. It was now or never.
Would 25 seconds suffice? “Andreas advised me of the time gap. When you are alone, all you have to do is go as hard as you can.
“Try. Try and try. And then you will see.”
He makes it sound so simple, yet it was anything but. A roll call of stellar racers lurked on the road less than half a minute adrift: previous winners Peter Sagan, Alexander Kristoff and Philippe Gilbert; genuine contenders Yves Lampaert, Bob Jungels, Oliver Naesen and Tiesj Benoot; wily campaigners Michael Matthews and Alejandro Valverde; and young pretenders Wout van Aert, Kasper Asgreen and Mathieu van der Poel.
Plus, crucially, the aforementioned Sebastian Langeveld, blocking and chasing with every sinew of his wiry frame. He couldn’t follow every move, but his efforts proved sufficient. Three Quick Steppers (Jungels, Asgreen and Lampaert) couldn’t get their act together – shades of the mighty Ian Stannard versus Boonen, Terpstra and Vandenbergh at Het Nieuwsblad, 2015.
Sagan, no matter how hard he tried, could not find a single companion prepared to put their nose in the wind with him. He’d attack, look round to find various limpets attached to his wheel, then sullenly retreat to consider his options once more.
And all the while, Bettiol ploughed his lonely furrow, not exactly the plan of action. “My goal was actually to bring some guys with me and then to try and do something,” Bettiol recalls. The final ascent of the Paterberg and his head was bobbing around like a toy bulldog on the parcel shelf of a Ford Escort, his arms flapping à la Froome. Those of us watching at home waited for the decisive move from behind. A group of the best Classics riders in the world had to contain enough tactical nous and firepower for at least two or three to bridge across, surely?
“If Van der Poel on the last climb of the Paterberg takes with him Van Avermaet and another guy, then maybe the three or four can bring me back.”
But no. They dillied and they dallied, while an emotional Bettiol lapped up the finish line applause on the long final straight on the outskirts of Oudenaarde. There was a sense from some quarters of being underwhelmed by the 2019 edition of De Ronde due to how those final kilometres played out, and the inability of the favourites to claw back the lone escapee. I include myself in the underwhelmed category – at the time. Yet the more I watched that race back, the more my appreciation grew for what Alberto Bettiol had pulled off. He dared. He won. Simple as that. He believed.
“Everything has to fall the right way to win Flanders – seven, eight, ten things. That time, that day, and you have to be in the best shape of your life. Punctures, crashes, weather, and then when you are there, you have to have this craziness in your mind to anticipate. I knew that if I arrived in the sprint, Sagan, Matthews, Van Avermaet, would beat me. The only way was to anticipate, to arrive alone.”
Only the lonely
Reel back to a teenage Alberto and those same creeping self-doubts appear again. His father played football; his brother also a bike racer, but never professional. Did the younger son have what it took to take the plunge?
“In the past, every time I was a little in doubt about cycling – am I good enough to become professional or is it just a passion? I would always win, then I had to take the opportunity to become a professional.”
The Cannondale squad of 2014 featured some serious firepower: Peter Sagan, Elia Viviani, Ivan Basso. But the season produced little in the way of results, and they were overwhelmingly delivered by Sagan and Viviani. A merger with the Garmin team at the year’s close saw a mass exodus of Italian riders and staff, and a new direction for those remaining, including Bettiol.
“We were only six or seven and the rest were from Garmin. But the style was completely different. Cannondale was like a big family. The Garmin style was you are more alone, you train alone, you manage yourself as a pro. Maybe I was not really ready for professional cycling. It took a while to adapt. Finally, in 2016, I began to see the finish line a little bit, but before it was really tough. I had to change my approach completely.”
The rider Vaughters affectionately nicknamed ‘Mamma di pasta’ struggled in more ways than one, his mother’s delicious cooking responsible for one element of the equation. “Our food is better than the rest!” Bettiol suggests, with a smile. “It’s easier for non-Italian riders to be skinnier.”
Bettiol bobbed along in the Cannondale set-up, neither disastrously nor successfully, until having his head turned by BMC in 2018. It proved to be a less than fruitful move: “It’s like when you find a girl and think: Oh, she is beautiful. But you don’t match. I could not express myself at the best, and also because of the crash [he sustained multiple injuries in that year’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège]. But I still learnt something, even if it was the worst year of my career. When I won Flanders, part of the process was that year at BMC – living like a champion like Van Avermaet, to see how he prepares for a race, a different model of team, a totally different perspective. So I learnt in the end.”
BMC stopped their sponsorship at the end of that year and Bettiol was welcomed back with open arms to EF Education and the American squad’s now-familiar approach. This time it paid off in spades. Another unlikely Classics win for the rank outsiders from the unlikeliest of sources.
And now we are in Italy at EF’s equipment supplier FSA and the media attention is full-on. Twelve months earlier and an invite to a press conference with Bettiol would have been politely declined. How does it feel to be the centre of attention?
“Still now it has changed my life. I learned in this six or seven months to manage my life. There are more things to do. You have to list and prioritise. Go to bed at the same time, train, rest, eat, sleep. For the rest, I have a group of people around me, and my manager is really important to make my life easier.”
And to be on that roll call of cycling greats who are Flanders winners?
“I dreamed, but not so close at 25 years old. It is strange because the people that really know me always thought about my potential wins, and they always talked of Flanders as a race I could win. If you arrive there really prepared, if you do a good winter, you go there without thinking about who you will face, if you free your mind, maybe you can win, because you have the numbers.
“I listened to my closest people, but I never believed as they did and still do. And I had to say, you were right and I was wrong. Because I really can win Flanders.”
Last April, Bettiol returned to the team hotel in Belgium, helped his comrades down a six-litre bottle of Kwaremont podium beer before moving onto the hard stuff and got three hours of sleep before flying back to Italy, followed by two days of sleep– with some of Mamma’s pasta, no doubt. Now he dreams of other targets, first and foremost his local race Strade Bianche. And why not? He’s clearly got the legs, but now the winning mentality so lacking in previous years makes for a complete package. Ignore the boy from Tuscany at your peril.
Back on the EF bus post-Flanders, Bettiol turned on his phone to find 386 new WhatsApp messages and a notification from Vodafone that all his data had been used up. What did he do about all those messages?
“It took me a month, but I replied to everyone.”
See. Sometimes nice guys come first after all.
This article was originally published in Rouleur issue 20.2. With thanks to FSA