The chase begins. Just 29 seconds separate Alberto Bettiol (EF Education Nippo) from the overall lead and the terrain in the opening phase of this Giro d’Italia lends itself to a spirited pursuit of the maglia rosa, beginning with Monday’s rolling finale through the hills of the Langhe.
Bettiol’s aptitude for short efforts against the watch meant that he limited his losses to Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers) better than most in the opening time trial, placing 12th on the stage, even if he expressed mild disappointment with his showing on the 8.6 kilometre course in Turin.
“It went well, but I expected it to go a bit better. I had a bit of a problem with my warm-up but we are where we are,” Bettiol said outside the ornate Savoy hunting lodge at Stupinigi ahead of stage 2.
That solid outing in Turin was the first step of what one journalist described to Bettiol as his Missione Rosa. The term was an echo of the headlines generated by his fellow Tuscan and past Tour of Flanders winner Michele Bartoli in 1998, when he spent the first week of the Giro in a very public, occasionally maddening, but ultimately successful pursuit of pink after a similar display in the Nice prologue. Unlike Bartoli all those years ago, Bettiol was reluctant to declare his intentions too openly.
“I’m reassured by the work I’ve done and my athletic condition, but I don’t want to say much more, because I want to speak with actions rather than words,” he said. “For now, I’ll stay silent in the peloton and later on I’ll try to show myself.”
Stage 3 brings the Giro from Biella to Canale on the outskirts of the truffle capital of Alba. After a gentle opening to proceedings, the terrain becomes more testing once the race crosses the Belbo river at Canelli. The climbs of Piancanelli, Castino and Manera follow as the route winds it way through the hills of the Langhe, while there are bonus seconds on offer in an uphill sprint at Guarene with 15 kilometres to go.
“I’ve seen the final climbs on Monday’s stage. My directeur sportif went to see the stage so I have an idea of it. I saw the road is new and it’s very nice,” said Bettiol.
“You can play out a whole lot of scenarios in your mind beforehand, but every stage has its own story. You have to look at the weather too. It seems it will rain on Monday so that might open things up a bit. But I’m calm. I’m thinking about trying to win a stage and then if the maglia rosa comes, so much the better. And if not, there are other opportunities later in the Giro.”
Beyond the coming days and the tacit tilt at the pink jersey, Bettiol has already creased at least one page on his Garibaldi for future reference. After placing 4th at Strade Bianche last August, he has designs on making an impression the gravel roads near Montalcino on stage 11, though much could depend on how the GC contenders approach the stage.
“As a Tuscan, obviously, I’d like to win in Montalcino, but I know it’s very hard,” he said. “It comes after ten days so maybe the level will be a bit different. I’ll have to see my form and the weather, because with rain the strade bianche change completely. There are a lot of unknowns, because there’s a rest day before it, too, but I can’t wait.”
Bettiol has spent much of the season to this point chasing his form. During the off-season, he was diagnosed with chronic ulcerative colitis. He lost two whole months of training and the ongoing treatment continued to exact a toll in the early part of the 2021 season.
“I feel very good now, I’ve recovered and the medication I had to take has been reduced,” he said. “There are no problems of any kind anymore, but I obviously have to keep an eye on it.”
The 27-year-old could only resume training on January 15 and he was still some way shy of his best by the time the Classics came around. His last competitive outing came at the Tour of Flanders, where, two years after his day of days, he could only manage a distant 28th in Oudenaarde. In the circumstances, he hadn’t aspired to much more at the Ronde, but the thought of returning to the Giro for the first time since 2016 had sustained him through the spring.
“In the first part of the season I obviously wasn’t as prepared as I’d have liked to have been, but it helped knowing that my work there would help me get ready for the Giro,” said Bettiol.
“I’ve won in Belgium, I won the most beautiful race in the world up there, but I was raised on the Giro d’Italia. I missed it a lot. Now I want to take the opportunities that arise, while also working for our leader Hugh Carthy, of course. But the Giro is the Giro, and I’ve prepared thoroughly for this.”
The EF Education-Nippo squad have dispensed with their usual pink attire for the Giro, replacing it with a multi-coloured kit that Bettiol dutifully explained had been designed to celebrate people from different backgrounds and nations coming together in pursuit of a common goal. “But I’d have ridden the Giro with anything on my jersey,” he smiled. “Cycling is always the same.”
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