Alberto Bettiol (EF Education-Nippo) is suffering from illness and a lack of training but he is still happy to be in Belgium and still hopeful he can produce a performance of some kind in Sunday's Tour of Flanders, the race he won in 2019 and loves so much.
Bettiol is from Castelfiorentino in the heart of the Tuscan Chianti vineyards, yet his ability in one-day races meant he fell in love with racing in Belgium. He has learnt to love racing on the cobbles and suffering in the crosswinds and rain.
This year Bettiol is suffering more than usual in Belgium. He was diagnosed with chronic ulcerative colitis during the winter after his pre-season UCI blood tests set alarm bells ringing. It is not life-threatening and it is under treatment but it derailed his pre-season training and put him back two months.
Before that, he went through the end of an important relationship, and his long-time agent and adviser Mauro Battaglin passed away while he was riding the Tour de France last September. Racing every day in the busy rescheduled 2020 season gave him direction and a safety net but then he became ill during the off-season. Chronic ulcerative colitis was only diagnosed during the Christmas holidays.
"I suffered a lot in November and December because I didn't know what the problem was. It's scary when you pass blood and you're not sure why," Bettiol tells Cyclingnews during an exclusive interview.
"You immediately think it could be a tumour and that's really scary but I'm fortunate that it's not serious. I've got to take a certain medicine for it that helps. It could go away in six months or a year but I've been told by specialists that I will get over it."
Health comes first but for professional athletes, training and competing is a close second. Bettiol lost two months of training during the winter and is playing catch-up with his Classics rivals.
"I feel good, I'm just not at my best. I'm chasing my rivals' tails and my own fitness. I started training on January 15 and I've done what I can but I'm racing the Classics with 2400km in my legs and 80 hours in the saddle less than I usually do. That's a handicap.
"I pay for it most in the long, hard and intense races. I'm able to recover between the races but the level is so high this spring that any lack of form is quickly exposed. My lights went out at Milan-San Remo after six hours and at Gent-Wevelgem I suffered because it was hard all day. I know I'll suffer at the Tour of Flanders but I'm not going to throw in the towel."
Bettiol opted not to ride Wednesday's Dwars door Vlaanderen, a slight cold convincing him and EF Education-Nippo that he was better taking a rest to recover before the Tour of Flanders. He went for a walk instead.
It was another blow for his morale but Bettiol refused to fold in defeat. He is determined to ride the Tour of Flanders and shows the Italian 'grinta' – grit of character – that helped him win in 2019.
"I have to just get on with it, suffer, suffer, fight, fight and show my grinta," Bettiol tells Cyclingnews, his determination clear in his voice.
"Other people have caught COVID-19 and suffered so much more than I have in the last year. I've got this problem and have to treat it and then get back to my best form.
"I know my season isn't over by a long way. I might ride be able to the Giro d'Italia in May, then there's the Olympics in the summer and the world championships in Belgium that seems perfect for me. There's a lot for me to look forward to."
Learning to love the Flemish Classics
Bettiol is one of just nine Italians to have won the Tour of Flanders. He was inspired by seeing Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara battle for victory when he first started cycling as a boy. He followed in the footsteps of fellow Tuscan winners Fiorenzo Magni who won three consecutive editions of the Tour of Flanders in 1949, 1950 and 1951, Michele Bartoli who won in 1996 and Andrea Tafi in 2002.
Cycling is now far more of a global sport but there are only a handful of Italian riders who have the talent and temperament to emerge in the Tour of Flanders. They include Matteo Trentin (UAE Team Emirates), Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Victorious) and Davide Ballerini (Deceuninck-QuickStep) but the Italians have to be extra hard to be competitive on the roads around Oudenaarde.
"In Italy, we grow up in a very different kind of cycling. It's terribly hard racing up here but the Belgian and the Dutch are naturally used to it all. We have to really learn to love it," Bettiol explains.
"Just think of the weather. The Flemish and the Dutch are used to the cold and rain, they probably went to school by bike in the rain almost every day. In Italy my mum would never have let me ride to school in the rain, she'd have taken me by car.
"Italian racing is a lot like Milan-San Remo: we love to roll along and chat at the back for 100km and then race the finale really hard. In Belgium, it's totally different. They don't have long climbs so if you want to win, you have to learn how to attack and make the difference on the cobbled climbs or in the wind. Positioning in the peloton and before the key points of the race is hugely stressful and it matters from the very start of the race.
"The cobbles and country roads of Flanders are so different and so difficult to get used to for whoever doesn't grow up there. It took me three years to learn how to race in Belgium and I still feel like a novice."
Bettiol served his racing apprenticeship in the early years of his career when he raced with Cannondale between 2014 and 2017 and quickly returned to Jonathan Vaughters' team after a season at BMC.
"I grew up watching the Tour of Flanders and so then to race on the same roads was magical," Bettiol recalls, explaining his love for racing in Flanders.
"Winning the Tour of Flanders in 2019 changed my life. It's like when you get married or have children. My life and my career will never be the same. I'm so grateful for that.
"There's something special about racing here. A little less so now due to the COVID-19 restrictions and limited crowds, because there isn't the smell of frites and beer over the top of the Kwaremont. But it's still a big day out, one any cyclist surely loves.
"I think the Tour of Flanders is the most beautiful race out there and I'm not saying that because I've won it. It's got everything. It's spectacular to watch and it's symbolic for all of us. It represents a nation and our sport so well."
Trying to take on Van Aert, Van der Poel and Deceuninck-QuickStep
Bettiol knows he has little chance of winning a second Tour of Flanders this year but he refuses to throw in the towel.
He was a surprise winner in 2019 but had a perfect day and surprised his rivals by riding away on the final climb of the Oude Kwaremont, with 17 kilometres to go and then holding off all the big-name chasers.
He was only 25 at the time and the youngest winner since Tom Boonen claimed the first of his three Ronde victories in 2005. It was also his first-ever professional victory after a series of placings that indicated his talents but never confirmed them. Victory really did change his life.
"Of course it hurts not to be able to honour this year's Tour of Flanders but it's a race I love and so I know that I'll be back in the years to come to fight for another victory," Bettiol said with optimism.
"I'll never give up trying to win races because I know what I can do in cycling, I've shown that by winning the Tour of Flanders."
With Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel and the Julian Alaphilippe/Deceuninck-QuickStep collective so strong, Bettiol knows he has to 'giocare di anticipo' – try and anticipate the big moves – just as Dylan Van Baarle (Ineos Grenadiers) did so well to win Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday.
"I, like so many others, have to play our cards early and try something long-range, that's risky but can come off if the big three look at each other," Bettiol explains.
"If we wait for the final time up the Kwaremont like I did in 2019, they'll just drop us and smash us. They can even win the sprint from a small group.
"Knowing my current form, I can't wait for the Kwaremont, I have to hope that something happens before then and then everything goes my way. It's going to be a lottery but you can't win if you don't buy a ticket."
Bettiol and his EF teammates stand out in their pink colours but we can expect him to hide in the peloton as much as possible on Sunday before trying a move.
"I think I can still do something using my race skills and experience I've learnt from the Flemish and from racing here in the last few years," he said.
"I like the way Dylan van Baarle races and how he moves at the right time, ahead of the big moments. I think I'll watch him and the Deceuninck riders on Sunday. Something might just happen. I can't race off Van Aert, Van der Poel or Alaphilippe for sure. I've got to race extra smart and super intelligently.
"I can't promise I'll be up there but I'll give it my all. Suffering on Sunday will hurt but it'll help me later, when I catch-up with my rivals later in the season. It'll prove I'm on my way back to my best."
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