Paolo Bettini is in Madrid on Tuesday, ready to begin a new chapter of his career in professional cycling. After a successful racing career that included two world titles and a haul of major Classic victories, followed by four years as Italian national coach, Bettini is expected to be given a key role in the creation of Fernando Alonso's new team, which will debut in 2015.
"It all happened really quickly. We'd talked a little bit but it all happened and came to life between December and Christmas. It felt like a great train was passing by and so I decided to jump on it," Bettini tells Cyclingnews in an exclusive interview.
Bettini will be 40 on April 1 and six years after retiring from racing, he feels ready to make a comeback to day-to-day life at the top level.
"I've always made important decision about my career after speaking to my family," Bettini explained.
"I'm going to be very busy and I’ll be back on the road but after plenty of time at home, my wife and I agreed it was time to do something new. I'll be 40 in the spring and the idea that I'm getting 'old' in some way made me want to get going again and take on a new challenge.
"I feel like I'm making a comeback in the peloton in some kind of way or preparing for a new world championships. We'll be starting from scratch and building something special. It's an innovative, ambitious project. That's what convinced me to accept the role, to roll up my sleeves and jump back into the world of professional cycling full time."
A new era for professional cycling
Bettini feels professional cycling is on the cusp of a new era. An era that is somehow shaking off the doping problems of the past and attracting new sponsors, new team owners and managers, and, more importantly, new fans and new cyclists.
"It's good that there's the new Alonso project, that a businessman like Oleg Tinkov has bought Bjarne Riis' team, that Sky has invested so well and so heavily in cycling. We've also got new leadership at the UCI. Cycling is in a good place as the global economy recovers," he points out.
"If people and companies are getting on board and still love cycling despite everything that has happened, it proves that cycling will always be strong and confirms that the worst is behind us. I think the sport will grow rapidly in the future."
Learning from the mistakes of the past
Bettini raced as a professional from 1997 to 2008, winning major Classics and world titles almost every season between 2000 and 2008. He was never linked to any major doping scandals but raced during one of the darkest decades of the sport.
Alonso has talked of his team being built on a foundation of transparency and zero tolerance to doping. It is unclear if the team will take a rigid stance like Team Sky and insist riders and staff sign a letter declaring they were never involved in doping. Bettini prefers to look to the future and defends the right of the likes of Bjarne Riis and David Millar to stay in the spot and play a positive role rather than be ostracized.
"We've got to look to the future but also learn from the mistakes of past. I think cycling is doing that. I don’t know what kind of Truth and Reconciliation process will be done by the UCI but we've got to move forward," he said.
"It's difficult to find a perfectly fair solution because each case is complex and different in many ways.
“Riis confessed to doping and offered to give back his yellow jersey. That was a big step for him. He's a team manager now and has built a great team over the years. Millar confessed, served his ban and is back racing and is a great advocate for the sport. I think they're both doing their best for the good of cycling now. Why shouldn't they both be allowed to play a role in building a better cycling?"
Bettini is not sure if Lance Armstrong should also be given similar treatment, however.
"It's difficult to judge Lance but perhaps his situation is more complex," Bettini said. "I don’t want to judge his case. We never raced much together but he was very arrogant in the peloton. I don’t want to say anything else because it’s a complex subject and it's out of our control."
No regrets as Italian coach
Bettini has quickly been replaced by Davide Cassani as the Italian national coach, with just a brief statement from the Italian president Renato Di Rocco thanking him for his four years in charge of the Azzurri.
With a new project capturing his attention, he has no interest in criticising Di Rocco, despite rumours of tension between them and the lack of a long-term strategy for the Italian national teams.
"I've got to thank the Italian Federation and the Italian president Renato Di Rocco. They trusted me after the tragic death of Franco Ballerini and gave me a chance," Bettini said, turning the other cheek.
"I've learnt a lot while working with the Italian Federation. It's not easy to manage a team that doesn't exist for the rest of the season. I tried to do my best even if the results perhaps don’t reflect the good work we did. I could have done better in certain moments but we went close to winning medals several times with Pozzato in 2010, with Pinotti in the time trial in 2012, and in 2013 at home in Florence.
There was a lot of pressure on us but we had a really united team and if Nibali and Paolini hadn't crashed, things would have been very different."
The woes of Italian cycling
Bettini has abandoned Italian cycling for a more international project with Alonso. Many of the best Italian riders and staff have already made similar moves, leaving Italian cycling poorer than ever before. One of cycling's great nations now lacks the vision and funding to compete successfully in the WorldTour.
"Italian cycling is suffering financially but it's not only a financial problem. It's about plans and projects not being activated and implemented," Bettini said.
"Unfortunately some of the traditionally strong cycling nations have sat on their laurels and the success of the past. The new cycling countries like Great Britain, Australia and the others have overtaken us. We've known and talked about the problem for five or six years but we still haven't done anything. That's why other nations have overtaken us. We're perhaps slowly changing now but we've got a lot of catching up to do."
Bettini revealed that he tried to do his bit but has now thrown in the towel, giving up the prestigious but frustrating role of Italian national coach to play a key role in Alonso new team.
"Last March I presented a four-year project for Italian cycling that covered the Rio 2016 Olympics. I knew that money was tight in the Federation but it was based on ideas rather than big budgets," he explained with a hint of sarcasm and satisfied irony.
"I expected that I'd be offered a four year-contract to carry out the plan. It didn’t happen and I was given a one-year contract. Now I can only thank the Italian Federation, because if I'd been under contract perhaps I wouldn't have been able to accept the huge chance I've been given now."