Alberto Bettiol (EF Education First) admits that he still experiences fear when riding in tightly-packed groups after two heavy crashes last season, but the Italian showed few inhibitions about riding on the front as he claimed fourth place at the E3 BinckBank Classic.
A week ago, Bettiol’s aggression on the Poggio triggered the winning move at Milan-San Remo, though the generosity of his efforts meant that he ultimately missed out on a high placing on the Via Roma. In the Flemish Ardennes on Friday, he was to the fore every time the group of favourites was whittled down.
The Tuscan was part of the initial selection that formed when Van Avermaet attacked on the Paterberg and he was one of just three riders who could follow the Belgian’s acceleration on the final ascent of the Tiegemberg. After this elite group caught lone escapee Bob Jungels (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Bettiol found himself in a tense five-up sprint for victory on Harelbeke’s Stasegemsesteenweg.
The honours fell, as it seems they now inevitably must do, to Deceuninck-QuickStep, with Jungels’ teammate Zdenek Stybar winning ahead of Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Greg Van Avermaet (CCC), while Bettiol had to settle for 4th.
“For me, it was really good, I felt good all day,” Bettiol said as he leaned across his handlebars past the finish line. “On the Paterberg, I was just a little bit behind, but I used my legs to move in the front. Then Van Avermaet – oof – he did a super impressive sprint in the climb after Varent and the group split.
“In the finale, the sport director told me to stay on the wheel of Stybar. He was too fast for me in the sprint, because he stayed all day in the wheels while we were pushing. But in the end, it was a positive day for me. I can sprint but against these huge champions, I could only do this.”
Bettiol had begun the day as part of a triumvirate of EF Education First leaders, but he and Sebastian Langeveld were left to lead the line after Sep Vanmarcke crashed out shortly after the midway point.
Passing information over a radio earpiece amid the clamour of a Flemish Classic is akin to trying to have a conversation during a My Bloody Valentine concert; chances are the words will be lost in the wall of sound. Bettiol only learned of Vanmarcke’s crash when he freewheeled to a halt in Harelbeke. Vanmarcke sustained no fractures in the incident but has been ruled out participating in Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday.
Bettiol, meanwhile, paid tribute to the efforts of Mitch Docker and Moreno Hofland to keep him tucked in safely towards the head of the peloton during the scramble for positions ahead of each climb. He acknowledged that he had expended excessive energy throughout the afternoon by failing to stand his ground at various pinch points.
“Last year, I had two big crashes and now I’m a bit scared staying in the peloton. I know I have to work on it, and my team are really supporting me to try to help me. Today, Mitch Docker and Moreno Hofland did a really good job to try to put me at the front as much as possible but it’s a really hard job for them because I’m a bit too scared. But fortunately, I have these super legs, so I could chase back to the front, but in the end the energy is really low. That’s the only thing I have to improve on.”
A native of Poggibonsi near Siena, Bettiol turned professional with Cannondale in 2014 and remained on the team after they merged with Slipstream the following year. He left Jonathan Vaughters’ squad for BMC amid the uncertainty over their future in the latter part of 2017, but he returned to the fold this season.
Bettiol had enjoyed a string of high placings in one-day races during the 2017 campaign and after a rather low-key hiatus at BMC, he has picked up more or less where he left off. The 25-year-old showcased his form with three top-10 finishes at Tirreno-Adriatico and a pugnacious display at Milan-San Remo. He will look to continue in a similar vein through the remainder of the Classics campaign.
“I feel really good here, and since I joined back this year, we’ve seen some good results,” Bettiol said. “Unfortunately, the victory doesn’t want to come, but I hope it will come soon.”
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.