Paolo Bettini believes professional cycling has had the courage to change after years of doping scandals, while other sports have struggled to face up to their problems.
Bettini was speaking at this year’s Tour Down Under, where he was a special guest at for the annual pre-race Legends’ dinner. The Tuscan-born Italian never raced the Tour Down Under during his career but was part of the Italian team that rode at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. He went on to win gold in the 2004 Olympics in Athens and enjoyed a prolific career between 1997 and 2008, winning the world title in 2006 and 2007 and five monument Classic victories during his career.
Bettini was Italian national coach between 2010 and 2014 but quit the prestigious position to create Fernando Alonso’s WorldTour team. The team never got off the ground but Bettini now reveals he had 15 riders committed the team before the project fell apart.
Without a full-time position in the sport, Bettini now works with Gazzetta dello Sport, commenting on races and has organised two stages of this year’s Tirreno-Adriatico near his home on the Tuscan coast. He is a close friend of Luca Paolini and also talked about the Katusha rider’s positive test for cocaine during the Tour de France.
“I think cycling in this moment is the best sport. It’s a very good sport. It’s impossible to say it’s totally clean, but the sport has worked hard to change the mentality,” Bettini told media at the Tour Down Under before the Legends’ dinner.
“Modern cycling had the courage to change, but other sports have not the courage for change. It’s impossible to say that the doping problem is finished, it’s important that the mentality has changed. All aspects of cycling have changed and they have a new approach to professional sport.”
Bettini admitted that he had witnessed the effects of doping on the sport, going as far as suggesting "we all felt at fault".
“I had 12 years in the pro ranks, and I had seen many cases of doping. Many friends, many rivals, they were involved in cases. A doping positive was a problem for everyone. We all felt at fault, we all took the blame. We saw so many cases,” he said.
Bettini was also asked about the late Marco Pantani and his close friend Luca Paolini. The two rode together for several years, with Paolini helping Bettini win his world titles and Milan-San Remo.
“Pantani's story is the most difficult to explain, it wasn’t a problem with the sport but it was a life problem for Pantani,” Bettini suggested. “Marco had a big problem in his personal life. When he left cycling, he fell into his own problems. On the bike he was very strong, in his personal life, he was very weak.”
“Luca has had three very difficult years. I knew about other problems but not the cocaine from the last Tour de France. In 2003, he was very young, 24, when his brother-in-law died, and it affected him very much. He took anti-depressants to keep him calm, and he’s been on and off them over the years.”
The end of the Alonso project
Bettini worked hard on the Alonso project in the winter of 2014 and was bitterly disappointed when the whole thing collapsed. He suggests the Spanish Formula One pilot’s problems during his final season at Ferrari derailed the project, leaving him high and dry.
“Whooooo – good question,” Bettini said when asked about the Alonso team.
“Now it is finished. In 2014 we worked for five months on the structure of the team, it was 70 per cent completed, I was in contact with 15 riders with the preliminary contract, with directeurs sportifs, it was ready to go. Then in May 2014, it all finished, I don’t know why.
“I think in 2014, there were many problems with Fernando in F1, to finish the contract with Ferrari, to have a new car for the 2015 season. There was a lot of confusion between Alonso’s manager and his entourage, for them it was a little game. For me it was not so easy. I had stopped working as the Italian national team to take on the project.”
Bettini apparently approached Peter Sagan, Tony Martin, Joaquim Rodriguez and others for the Alonso team. He now refuses to talk names but is still convinced the team would have been good for cycling.
"Out of respect for others, I cannot say the names," Bettini said. “But the Alonso project was going to be big, with a Formula 1 driver, it would have been big for cycling. The Fernando project was not just for a professional team, but for the women’s team, a young team, not only for cycling, but for other projects. That was the idea behind this project."