Monday’s La Gazzetta dello Sport had a photo of Alberto Bettiol on its front cover, celebrating his and Marta Bastianelli’s victories at the Tour of Flanders. They called Bettiol the ‘Leoncino di Fiandre’ - the little lion of Flanders. It was a respectful diminutive of the real Lion of Flanders - Fiorenzo Magni, who was the first Italian to ever win the race and who completed a rare treble in 1950, 1951 and 1952.
Thanks to Bettiol, Italy has now won the Tour of Flanders 11 times, and he is the fourth Tuscan to triumph after Magni, Bartoli (1996) and Andrea Tafi (2002).
Bettiol rides for EF Education First but he is Tuscan to the core and continues the heritage of talent to emerge from the region, albeit with an international twist. He comes from Castelfiorentino between Florence and Siena, in the heart of the Chianti hills. The roads through the vineyards and olive trees are steeper and longer than the hellingen of Flanders, but they are the perfect training roads for Classics riders.
Tuscany is more than 1,000km south of Flanders, but like Bartali, Bartoli, Tafi, Ballerini and Bettini, Bettiol has the innate talent and bike skills for the spring Classics and hard racing.
“He was an extremely underrated rider,” EF Education First team manager Jonathan Vaughters said after the race on Sunday of his latest ‘Moneyball’ find.
“He’s an excellent racer, he knows when to save energy, he knows when to relax. He’s versatile. He can sprint a little bit. He can climb. He’s good on the stones. And he’s a really great time trialist.”
Aiming at the stars
Incredibly, the Tour of Flanders was Bettiol’s first professional victory after six years in the peloton, but his career trajectory always aimed at the stars.
The Twitter handle includes this message: “...if you want something you never had... you have to do something you've never done...”
Bettiol won the Coppa d’Oro schoolboy race, the Junior Giro della Lunigiana stage race and a string of prestigious under 23 races. He was European junior time trial champion and finished ninth in the 2013 U23 Tour of Flanders before being signed by the Liquigas team for 2014 at just 20 and given time to develop alongside Peter Sagan, Davide Formolo, Elia Vivian and Ivan Basso.
When Vaughters took over the Cannondale team, Bettiol stayed on and began to enjoy the more relaxed atmosphere in the US-registered team. The results came, too. He was second in the 2016 Bretagne Classic in Plouay and fourth the week after at the Grand Prix Cycliste de Quebec in Canada. In 2017, he played a key support role for Rigoberto Uran when he finished second at the Tour de France and produced a superb sprint lead-out for Italian teammate Matteo Trentin at the World Championship in Bergen.
The 2019 Flanders podium with Asgreen, Bettiol and Kristoff (Bettini Photo)
Bettiol moved to BMC Racing when the Cannondale team almost folded, but two fractured collarbones disrupted his season. He also didn’t fit in with the stricter regime and was keen to return ‘home’ after EF Education First took over Vaughters’ team.
“I don’t know what’s special about this team, but they know how to get the best out of me,” Bettiol told Cyclingnews during Tirreno-Adriatico.
“They give me the mental freedom to train and race as I like to do, and that helps me do even better. We went different ways in 2018, but they were happy to take me back this year and I simply want to pay them back for their support.”
Vaughters was happy to have him, but insisted he lose some weight, the excess apparently caused by homemade Tuscan pasta.
“The name I gave him in the 2017 was ‘Mamma di Pasta’ and he still calls himself that. When he signed his contract he sent me a text saying: “Mamma di Pasta is coming back!’” Vaughters revealed as they waited to celebrate with Bettiol at the EF Education First bus on Sunday post-race.
“He said: ‘If you leave me at home with my mother in Italy, I get fat. You have to have me at training camps and keep pushing me.’ So we put in a little extra effort in keeping track of him.”
Losing three kilogrammes
Greg van Avermaet praised his former teammate but suggested he was above his racing weight in 2018. It was somewhat ironic that Bettiol blasted past his former team leader when he attacked over the top of the Oude Kwaremont on Sunday.
EF Education First got him to focus more on his training and lose three kilograms before the 2019 season. He was also sent to the Tour Down Under and is closely followed by senior directeur sportif Charly Wegelius and Italian directeur sportif Fabrizio Guidi.
EF Education First set up an alarm on Bettiol’s Garmin so he would remember to drink in races and avoid the cramps that disrupted his performance at Strade Bianche. He also impressed on his home roads on stage 2 of Tirreno-Adriatico, finishing third on the uphill charge to Pomerance behind Julian Alaphilippe and Van Avermaet. When he finished second in the final time trial, some suggested the timing was wrong. It was a sign that Bettiol had ended the race on form.
He took that form into Milan-San Remo but admitted he blew his chances by attacking too hard on the Poggio. He provided the launch pad for Alaphilippe but didn’t have anything left to go in the select group. That and a fourth place at E3 BinckBank Classic left Bettiol angry and determined to make amends at the Tour of Flanders.
“You could see that he needed that one notch up, that one little click. I think E3 was the moment he realised he could win,” Vaughters explained.
“He was really pissed off that he didn’t win. That just rolled into this week.”
And victory at the Tour of Flanders?
“I’m at a point in my career where I needed to become a real rider,” Bettiol suggested, perfectly encapasulating his career.