An interview with Paolo Bettini, January 25, 2008
World Champion Paolo Bettini didn't exactly have a dream first season in the rainbow stripes, but he did manage to earn another chance for success in the jersey. Cyclingnews' Ben Atkins caught up with him at his Quick Step team's Benecassim training camp as he prepared for his second – and he hopes more successful – year in the jersey.
With his highly emotional win in the 2006 Giro di Lombardia – spurred on by the death of his elder brother Sauro – it looked like, in sporting terms anyway, that Paolo Bettini was going to shrug off the curse that often seems to attach itself to a recently won rainbow jersey. Unfortunately it was not to be, and the insult of a series of near misses added to the injury of multiple pile-ups, and the high win count that we have become accustomed to from Il Grillo (the 'cricket') was conspicuous in its absence.
Despite all this, Bettini remains positive about the experience of his first full season in the rainbow jersey, and even manages to see the lighter side of his apparent bad luck. "It was good, it was wonderful to ride in the jersey, but maybe less crashes would have been better!" he joked when asked for his overall impressions of 2007. "I only had three wins, but I crashed 12 times!"
Thankfully though, despite ending up on the tarmac more times than just about anyone else in the peloton, he managed to escape serious injury. There were some notable aches and pains he could happily have done without though: "I had a problem with my ribs during the Giro, and before Milano-Sanremo, but nothing serious." One crash can ruin a season, so to suffer a dozen and come away relatively unscathed can be viewed as fortunate in many ways – although not as fortunate as not having the crashes in the first place!
"When I speak, I speak for Paolo Bettini, and only for myself." -Bettini says his willingness to speak up on controversial issues is not part of his duty as World Champion.
One of the real highlights of his first year as World Champion was the opportunity to ride his home tour – the Giro d'Italia – in the rainbow jersey. This afforded him the honour of being able to show himself in front of the entire country and, despite falling victim to several of the pile-ups that littered the race, he remembers the race fondly. "Yes of course, during the classics it was great, but the Giro was something different because you ride in front of your public, not only for one day, but for 21 days in a row."
Bettini may have had just three victories in the entire season, but his main ambition for the year – namely the successful defence of his world title – was achieved, putting all the previous disappointments behind him. "After the race I was really really happy because I'd won the most important race of the year."
Winning in Stuttgart had proved more complicated than his victory in Salzburg the year before though. Efforts by the organisers to prevent him from racing in a row over his objections to the riders' declaration and a tenuous link to the Sinkewiz doping case – where the German media had originally claimed that he was named in police interrogations – meant that it was a sort of victory to have even taken the start.
When victory came it was therefore all the sweeter, and the rifle shot he mimed as he crossed the line was aimed at all those who had tried to stop him. "It was something different, it's true, because I won on the road but at the same time the taste was different because I also won against other enemies. I fought not only against the other riders, but other things as well."
For Italy to have won three World Championships in six years (Mario Cipollini in 2002, and Bettini 2006 and 2007) was unheard of in recent years. The Italian team seemed to consist of disparate groups, almost seeming like a dozen individuals – with too many leaders and not enough workers – who would often chase each other down for their trade team-mates (most recently when Paolo Lanfranchi brought back Gilberto Simoni's last lap attack in Lisbon 2001, in order to have Spain's Oscar Freire win). Since taking over the mantle of Italian coach though, Franco Ballerini seems to have forged a genuine squadra azzura, where champion riders put their own egos aside to race for their country.
There must be something that Ballerini has been doing right, stuck as he is between so many great riders and influential teams. "The position of Ballerini is not easy," admits Bettini, "he is always in the middle and it's difficult to manage a situation like this. But Franco is able to manage everything in a good way."
We wondered how much of his craft Ballerini had learned during his years riding with the Mapei team – which became Quick Step. This team has always been renowned for combining the talents of multiple grand champions to win major classics. "Yes it's true that when he was with the Mapei team Franco learned a lot. He won Paris-Roubaix twice and so he knows what it's like with this kind of races – with the one-day races – and maybe he learned something during his time. He has a different focus to the directeurs sportif who maybe have their focus on the big tours."
Alongside the rainbows that adorn almost every inch of Paolo Bettini's racing strip, bike and helmet, is a good deal of gold – an indication of the other title he currently holds: that of Olympic Champion. And one of the biggest single day races in the 2008 calendar will be the road race in Beijing – obviously a title that he would like to successfully defend.
"It's clear that my two objectives of the year are the Olympic Games and the World Championships. It feels very different to all the other situations in my career, but I built this possibility by building my career over the years. I could be the first rider in the history of cycling that could defend – in the same year – his Olympic and World titles in only 40 days: between the 9th of August and the 28th of September."
The latter date is embedded in his mind despite him trying to avoid focussing too soon. Not because of the race, but for a more personal reason: "I'm trying not to think about it, but I know the date of the World Championships because it's also the birthday of my daughter Veronica."
What better present could he make his young daughter than a third consecutive rainbow jersey? "I understand it is something huge, but I am trying to stay relaxed, otherwise if I start thinking too much about it..."
I press him though, about how much he knows about the Worlds parcours in Varese, but he cheerfully refuses to be drawn further. "I know the parcours is suitable for me and my technical characteristics, but I don't want to think about it until August or September!"
As evidenced by his willingness to speak out on many of the issues that the sport currently faces, Bettini is a rider who is not afraid to speak his mind. He stresses however, that this is not something he feels is a duty that comes with his World Champion status. "No, it's just Paolo Bettini," he explains. "I don't want to represent anybody. When I speak, I speak for Paolo Bettini, and only for myself."
Bettini is a well-known specialist at the hillier one-day races, having won such monuments and classics as Liege-Bastogne-Liege (twice), the Giro di Lombardia (twice), the Championship of Zurich and the Clasica San Sebastian. Even his win at the 2003 Milano-Sanremo owed more to his climbing prowess than his punchy sprint. Despite this, he has often considered riding the grittier, tougher, hard man's cobbled classics, partly to honour the rainbow jersey that he wears, but also to see how a rider like him would fare.
"Maybe this year could be the right year to do a great Ronde van Vlaanderen, but also for the first time Paris-Roubaix. Why not? I want to try. Maybe there's a risk, but it's a calculated risk, because if maybe something happened during this race I will have all the time to recover and get into good shape for the main objectives of the season."
Riding the cobbled classics competitively for the first time might well have an effect on the rest of his spring campaign, but as it would be a step into the unknown it could go either way: "Maybe it would not be a problem for me to ride Paris-Roubaix and then also the classics that are more suitable for me, like the Amstel Gold or the Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Maybe this race could help me to find a good condition. Or maybe not! I don't know because I've never ridden these kinds of races!"
At the Benecassim training camp, the team was divided into two groups: Boonen's group training hard for the Tour of Qatar, but Bettini's group was at a lower level. "I'm happy with my condition. It is maybe a little bit lower than last year, but that's the way I want it, because my focused objectives are later in the year – in August and September – so it's better if I start slowly and then build up."
"It's normal for the team to be divided into two smaller groups, as some riders are starting their season earlier than others."
Not aiming to start as early as the Tour of Qatar at the end of this month, Bettini's season will begin in a similar way to usual, but perhaps with a slightly gentler beginning and also a bit of respect for a local race that's close to his heart. "My first race of the year will be the Donoratico [G.P. Costa degli Etruschi - Ouverture Nobili Rubinetterie] in February, and then [the Tour of] California. If I'm at 100 percent for Donoratico then I can't win, it's easier for me to lose! It's not so important to arrive at 100 percent or even 80 percent, it's just a race that I want to ride because it's near my home, and the first race of my professional career was Donoratico. Now that my career is almost over [he will be 34 years old in April] I want to ride it again."
Like many riders whose focus is later in the year, Bettini has no intention of peaking his form too soon. With the aim of peaking first for races in late March and April, he will be approaching a race that he used to regard as a target for victory in a slightly different way: "Tirreno-Adriatico has always been a race where I arrived with the objective of winning, but more recently it has become a race that I use to prepare for other objectives. I think that this year will be one of those years, Tirreno-Adriatico will be the first race that I ride to develop condition for the races to follow."
Surely, after something of an annus horribilis in 2007, and at least two of his 12 crashes striking in the race between the two seas, his first objective for the race this year must be to finish it with the rubber side down.
Providing the only Tarmac he finds himself on in 2008 is the SL2 made for him by Quick.Step's bike sponsor Specialized, you wouldn't bet against Paolo Bettini's rainbow jersey – or, for that matter, his maglia azzura in Beijing and Varese – hitting the front of many races this season.