The Italian Squadra isn’t one of the strongest teams for this year’s Men’s World Championship road race, but team leader Alberto Bettiol likes to fly under the radar, confident in his own ability and form after three roller-coaster seasons that tested his resolve but made it have him stronger.
The Tuscan EF Education EasyPost rider won the 2019 Tour of Flanders but has struggled with a series of issues since. However, riding this year’s Tour de France and nearly winning the stage to Mende put him back on track physically 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’m feeling good. I’m looking forward to the world, I’m not afraid of what’s going to happen,” says Bettiol cycling news in an exclusive interview.
The Italian team are under pressure at home after a row over how commissions are paid to executives for attracting commercial sponsorship. However, Cordiano Dagnoni has retained his role as president and the Italian Olympic Committee has upheld the decision to pay commissions to full-time employees.
The summer’s polemics have overshadowed the work of new men’s coach Daniele Bennati, but the former professional sprinter has quietly continued his job, choosing Bettiol and Matteo Trentin as team leaders after traveling to Australia in the spring to see the Wollongong course .
Also in the Italian team of eight riders are Andrea Bagioli, who finished third at the last Montreal GP, his QuickStep AlphaVinyl teammate Davide Ballerini, as well as Lorenzo Rota, Samuele Battistella, Eduardo Affini and Nicola Conci. Filippo Ganna declined selection due to his plans to focus on time trial and aim for hour record and chase world championships.
“Daniele are both Tuscans, we rode in the same U23 teams, know each other well and therefore trust each other,” says Bettiol about Bennati, who traces back to the long Italian tradition of Italian national coaches from Tuscany, which goes back to the legend Alfredo Martini – Commissario Tecnico’ from 1975 to 1997 – via Paolo Bettini and Franco Ballerini.
“I spoke to Daniele about Worlds for the first time earlier this year. Then he went to Australia, looked at the route and even before he told me he said in an interview that it was a course that really suited me and appointed me as team leader.
“I committed myself to a leadership role and it has boosted my confidence and focused my mind. I prepare for the Worlds throughout the year with great support from EF Education-EasyPost and especially from my athletic director, Charly Wegelius, who knows me well.
“Matteo Trentin is co-leader and road captain. We’re friends and good teammates, and we’ve already contested three worlds together. We are a young team but we are united and have a mix of experience and young talent.
“When the race explodes we need to be good at using the right riders at the right time and place to hopefully set the finale up for me. We are not the favorites and that should help us to race without any additional pressure on the day.”
Getting stronger through adversity
Bettiol will turn 29 on October 29 and turned pro with Cannondale in 2014. He has been with the team ever since, apart from spending 2018 at BMC. He only has three career wins, but the second at the 2016 Bretagne Classic and fourth at the 2016 GP de Quebec showed where his talent lies.
He hit the jackpot in 2019 when he attacked solo and won the Tour of Flanders. Victory in Flanders had a massive impact on his life and career, but he had little time to adjust and enjoy it all as the COVID-19 pandemic changed the world and cycling in 2020.
“Since winning the Tour of Flanders I’ve been through a lot that most people don’t know and don’t understand how it has affected me. “There were good things and bad things, but I had to work through them all,” says Bettiol cycling news.
“I went through the COVID-19 pandemic. I was seriously ill with chronic ulcerative colitis and was afraid of having a tumor. During the treatment I did not drive for two long periods.
“I also lost my agent and good friend Mauro Battaglini to cancer. I moved to Switzerland from Tuscany, although I’m Italian and like to stay at home. I have also gone through changes in my private life. It may sound like I’m apologizing for the past three years, but it’s the truth.
“It’s been a crazy time but everything that has happened has made me more mature and now stronger than ever. I managed to get through it all and I feel better than ever. I’ve been able to race and train over the past few months and when I have a clear run on big goals I know I can win big again.”
“Now is the time to get back on track. I’m 29 so not part of the new young generation, but I’m just as hungry as they are.”
The meaning of the Tour de France
Bettiol struggled in this year’s spring classics after contracting COVID-19, but riding in the Tour de France gave him the foundation for his world championship aspirations.
He finished fifth on Stage 8 in Lausanne, in the uphill sprint won by Wout van Aert, paused and helped teammate Magnus Cort win at Megève on Stage 10.
His own winning shot came to Mende on stage. He was on the crucial break and was strong on the final climb to the finish of the runway, but Michael Matthews proved just a little stronger. He pulled Bettiol back over the top of the climb to push away and win.
“The loss to Mathews hurt, but it’s important to look at the bigger picture,” Bettiol said.
“I rode the Tour, found my best form again and came out well so I can be competitive at the World Championships and be at my best again next year.
“It was an important rite of passage. Last fall and winter I was out of action for four months and didn’t drive after the Olympic Games at the end of July. It’s been a long way back, but I’ve worked hard through the winter, spring, and then summer. COVID-19 ruined my spring campaign so I really wanted to ride well at the Tour.”
The Wollongong course and van der Poel as a favourite
Bettiol spent some time at altitude in August and then raced in Canada to improve his form. He appeared to be suffering from a slight Achilles’ heel from the heat cramps, but the weather in Australia is expected to become cool and dry in the coming days after possible rain.
Bettiol studied the course at Wollongong with his Italian team-mates on Wednesday and liked what he saw, even though he was aware of how difficult the race could be.
The climb to Mount Pleasant on the route is steep and will split the field, especially after 230km or more,” he warns.
“The climb takes five or six minutes, but the rest of the route is fast so you almost always have to hit the brakes. The last kilometer is fast too, with the last corner 300 meters from the finish, positioning will be important there. It will be important to be alert but to stay covered on the wheels.
Bettiol has studied many of his rivals in Canada but chooses Mathieu van der Poel as his personal favourite.
“There’s a lot of talk about other riders like van Aert, Girmay and Matthews racing in his native Australia but my personal favorite is Mathieu,” says Bettiol.
“He’s used to rarely racing, but he’s always on form straight away. He knows how to train and when he’s focused on a big goal, he rarely makes mistakes. People who know him have told me that between the Giro and the Tour he trained too much at altitude and was tired as a result. I’m sure he’s rested and learned a lesson.”
Bettiol expects van der Poel to light up the race in the final laps.
“I’m sure nobody wants to finish Matthews, van Aert and Girmay because they’re going to win the sprint. That means it could be a tough, selective race. It suits drivers with stamina and experience in the great classics,” predicts Bettiol, who wants to get in on the action at the right moment with the support of the Italian team.
“We can’t ride on the backfoot, we have to count and anticipate attacks and selections and we have to be there. I am sure that we will not be alone in races like this.
“I know I won the Tour of Flanders, which is arguably a bigger and tougher race than the World Championships. That gives me the courage to compete and get started on Sunday.”