2006 UCI World Road Championships
CM Salzburg, Austria, September 20-24, 2006
From pupil to top achiever
Paolo Bettini crowned his career with an emotional victory in the men's world championship road race in Salzburg. The Italian attacked twice in the latter stages, but was unable to get away. Finally, he found the wheels of Erik Zabel (Germany), Alejandro Valverde and Samuel Sanchez (Spain) as a gap opened up with 500m to go, and beat them all to take the rainbow jersey. Jean-François Quénet profiles Bettini's career.
Ten years ago, the UCI inaugurated the U23 world championships to succeed the amateur category. The Italians dominated the rest of the pack that day. They captured the first four places: Giuliano Figueras, Roberto Sgambelluri and Luca Sironi got the medals but they insisted on Paolo Bettini to join them on stage for ceremony. For the first time, in 1996, the friendly kid from La California in Tuscany became full of emotions listening to "fratelli d'Italia", his national anthem.
Figueras, Sgambelluri and Sironi might have been overrated too early. They were quickly treated like stars in Italian cycling while Bettini was taken under Michele Bartoli's wings. They moved together from MG-Technogym (1997) to ASICS (1998), then Mapei. Bettini learnt his job as a domestique. He would have done anything to make Bartoli a winner. At the time, when Bartoli decided to live in Monaco, he invited Bettini and his girlfriend (now his wife) Monica to visit because they didn't know this little tax-free paradise on the French Riviera. When Bartoli as a World number one flew to France to race the Chrono des Herbiers as the last race of the year in 1998, he brought Bettini and his other good friend Luca Scinto with him.
Bettini kept improving in the shadow of the Italian cycling icon for the one-day races. It was inevitable that Il grillo (the cricket) would reach the level of his guardian angel and their respective ambitions would clash. Bartoli's career was deeply affected by a horrible crash at the Tour of Germany in 1999. In his absence, Bettini took his chance to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège for the first time in 2000. That year was crucial. Bettini and Bartoli were together again at Sydney Olympics, chasing down the German-Kazakh trio formed by Jan Ullrich, Andreas Klöden and Alexandre Vinokourov, but they had to be happy with 4th and 5th.
One month later, at the world championship in Plouay, France, the inevitable split occurred. Bettini kind of "forgot" to pull the sprint for Bartoli and their long term relationship ended there. As Franco Ballerini took over the responsibility of the squadra azzurra, the 2001 world championship in Lisbon was the theatre of another internal dilemma. That's where Bettini started his campaign for the rainbow jersey, coming second behind Oscar Freire. The following year, it was all for Mario Cipollini in Zolder and it worked. In 2003, he missed out a medal finishing 4th in Hamilton. In 2004, he got injured during the race in Verona and Ballerini was confused. He asked the gregari to wait for him but a retirement was around the corner. Bartoli's golden years were over when Bettini became the Olympic champion in Athens. It's been Bartoli's dream to capture the rainbow jersey: Bettini had done it.
Bettini may not have Bartoli's charisma, probably because Bartoli's style and position on the bike has had no equivalent, but Bettini, now 32, has achieved everything he could on the road. Because he's a man of challenges, the three times winner of the World Cup announced that he'd like to give the track a try now! Just like in Stuttgart when Gianni Bugno became the world champion for the first time, the red, white and green jersey of Italian champion disappeared from the professional bunch for nine months. But Bettini is for sure the ideal world champion.