The Italian team is not one of the strongest teams for this year’s men’s World Championships road race but team leader Alberto Bettiol is happy to fly under the radar, confident of his own ability and form after three roller coaster seasons that have tested his resolve but made him stronger.
The Tuscan EF Education-EasyPost rider won the 2019 Tour of Flanders but has since faced a series of problems. However, riding this year’s Tour de France, and almost winning the stage to Mende, got him physically back on track and mentally confident for the World Championships.
“I know I’m the designated leader of the Italian team but I’m not under pressure and I feel good. I’m looking forward to the World, I’m not scared of whatever happens,” Bettiol tells cyclingnews in an exclusive interview.
The Italian team has been under pressure at home after a dispute about senior staff being paid commissions for securing commercial sponsors. However Cordiano Dagnoni has hung onto his role as president and the Italian Olympic Committee have validated the decision to pay commissions to full time staff.
The summer polemics have overshadowed the work of new men’s coach Daniele Bennati but the former professional sprinter has quietly got on with his job, selecting Bettiol and Matteo Trentin as team leaders after a spring trip to Australia to see the Wollongong course.
Also in the eight-rider Italian team are Andrea Bagioli, who was third at the recent Gran Prix Cycliste de Montréal, his QuickStep-AlphaVinyl teammate Davide Ballerini, plus Lorenzo Rota, Samuele Battistella, Eduardo Affini and Nicola Conci. Filippo Ganna turned down selection due to his plans to focus on the time trial and target the Hour Record and track World Championships.
“Daniele are both Tuscan, we raced in the same U23 teams, know each other well and so we trust each other,” Bettiol says of Bennati, who follows in the long Italian tradition of Italian national coaches from Tuscany that go back to the legendary Alfredo Martini – Technical Commissioner’ from 1975 to 1997 – via Paolo Bettini and Franco Ballerini.
“I first spoke to Daniele about Worlds at the start of the year. Then he went to Australia, saw the route and even before telling me, he said in an interview it was a course that really suited me and named me as a team leader.
“I’ve committed to a leadership role and it’s lifted my confidence and focused my mind. I’ve been preparing for the World Championships every year, with great support from EF Education-EasyPost and especially my directeur sportif Charly Wegelius, who knows me well.
“Matteo Trentin is a co-leader and road captain. We’re friends and well as teammates and we’ve already done three Worlds together. We’re a young team but we’re united and have a mix of experience and young talent.
“When the race explodes we’ll have to be good at using the right riders at the right time and in the right place, hopefully setting up the finale for me. We’re not the favorites and that should help us race without any extra pressure on the day.”
Becoming stronger through adversity
Bettiol will turn 29 on October 29 and turned professional in 2014 with Cannondale. He has been with the team ever since, apart from spending 2018 at BMC. He only has three career victories but second in the 2016 Bretagne Classic and fourth at the 2016 Grand Prix Cycliste de Quebec indicated where his talents lie.
He hit the jackpot in 2019 when he attacked alone and won the Tour of Flanders. Victory in Flanders massively affected his life and career but he had little time to adapt and enjoy it all, with the COVID-19 pandemic changing the world and cycling in 2020.
“I’ve been through a lot since winning the Tour of Flanders, which most people don’t know about and don’t understand how it’s affected me. “There have been good things and bad things but I’ve had to work through them all,” Bettiol tells cyclingnews.
“I’ve been through the COVID-19 pandemic. I was seriously ill with chronic ulcerative colitis and was scared I had a tumor. I didn’t race for two long spells while having treatment.
“I also lost my agent and good friend Mauro Battaglini to cancer. I’ve moved from Tuscany to Switzerland even though I’m Italian and like to stay at home. I’ve also gone through changes in my personal life. It perhaps sounds like I’m making excuses for the last three years but it’s the truth.
“It’s been a crazy period but everything that has happened has made me more mature and now stronger than ever. I managed to keep racing through it all and so I feel better than ever. I’ve been able to race and train in recent months and when I get a clear run at big goals, I know I can win big again.”
“Now it’s time to get back on track. I’m 29, so not part of the new young generation but I’m as hungry as they are.”
The importance of the Tour de France
Bettiol struggled in this year’s spring Classics due to catching COVID-19 but riding the Tour de France gave him the foundations for his World Championships ambitions.
He finished fifth on stage 8 Lausanne, in the uphill sprint won by Wout van Aert and went into the break and helped teammate Magnus Cort win in Megève on stage 10.
His own shot at victory came on the stage to Mende. He was in the decisive break and was strong on the final climb up to the runway finish but Michael Matthews proved to be just a little stronger. He pulled Bettiol back over the top of the climb to kick away and win.
“Losing to Mathews hurts but it’s important to see the bigger picture,” Bettiol points out.
“I rode the Tour, found my best form again and came out of it well, so that I can be competitive at the World Championships and also be back to my best in the year ahead.
“It was a vital rite of passage. I was out of action for four months last autumn and winter, I didn’t race after the Olympic Games at the end of July. It was a long way back but I worked hard in the winter, the spring and then the summer. COVID-19 wrecked my spring campaign and so I really wanted to ride well at the Tour.”
The Wollongong course and van der Poel as a favourite
Bettiol spent time at altitude in August and then raced in Canada to polish his form. He suffered in the heat, cramps apparently a slight achilles heel, but the weather in Australia is set to be cool and dry after possible rain in the next few days.
Bettiol studied the Wollongong course with his Italian teammates on Wednesday and liked what he saw, even if he realized just how difficult the race could be.
The Mount Pleasant climb on the circuit is steep and will split the field, especially after 230km or further,” he warns.
“The climb last five or six minutes but the rest of the course is fast, with almost no need to touch the brakes. The last km fast too, with the last corner at 300 meters to go, positioning will be important there. It’ll be important to be vigilant but to stay covered on the wheels.
Bettiol studied many of his rivals in Canada but picks Mathieu van der Poel as his personal favorite.
“There’s a lot of talk about other riders like van Aert, Girmay and Matthews who is tracing at home Australia but my personal favorite is Mathieu,” Bettiol says.
“He’s used to racing infrequently but is always immediately on form. He knows how to train and when he focuses on a big goal he rarely gets it wrong. People who know him have told me that he trained too much at altitude between the Giro and the Tour and so was tired. I’m sure he’s rested-up and learned a lesson.”
Bettiol expects van der Poel to light-up the race in the final laps.
“I’m sure that nobody wants to take Matthews, van Aert and Girmay to the finish because they’ll win the sprint. That means it could be a hard, selective race. It suits riders with endurance and experience of the big Classics,” Bettiol predicts, keen to join in the action at the right moment, with support from the Italian team.
“We can’t race on the back foot, we have to expect and anticipate any attacks and selections and we have to be in there. I’m sure we won’t be alone racing like that.
“I know I won the Tour of Flanders, which is arguably a bigger and harder race than the World Championships. That gives me the courage to line-up on Sunday and go for it.”